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For young players making their way through a full 162-game season for the first time, getting to the finish line is always a goal.
Knowing what it takes to get through a season and understanding how they have to prepare their body for that grind is one of those lessons they learn along the way. Then, when they’ve become “veterans,” they’ll have nailed out a routine that they know will get them all the way through year, one that just becomes natural for them the further along they get in their careers.
“I think knowing what that task feels like, there’s an accomplishment aspect to that,” manager David Ross said last month. “… Then, when you kind of reassess, you start a new season, you realize, ‘OK, spring training for me is to prepare for this marathon that we’re gonna have,’ not, ‘I’m gonna come in and throw my first bullpen as hard as I can, because I want to impress the coaches.’
“We talk about that in spring, but those things that we do in spring is to prep the body, to prep the mind, to get physically acclimated to moving the right way, having the at-bats, get our timing down so we can go through this long season and hopefully get into the playoffs and win the World Series. I think it is important to get that finish line.”
Now that he’s returned to the Cubs, Keegan Thompson gets to resume being educated in that process.
In the Cubs’ 4-3 victory over the Marlins on Wednesday, Thompson earned his 10th win of the year by tossing three scoreless innings out of the bullpen, his first game action with the Cubs in over a month. Prior to leaving his last start on Aug. 19 and then being placed on the 15-day injured list with low-back tightness, Thompson was one of the club’s workhorses. He was among few players on the roster who hadn’t dealt with an injury or had any other extended absence in 2022.
From a development perspective, being around for the first four months of the season was as big a positive as any for Thompson. But on the other hand, having no breaks in his first full season in the big leagues and having pitched by far his highest number of innings in any year of pro ball since 2018 — coming off a lockout-shortened spring training, no less — was eventually going to catch up to him.
“He’s one of the guys that hasn’t had any time [off],” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said recently, “so it’s a good place to hit the reset button, work on a few things, get some strength and some stamina back and then just kind of hit the reset button and go.”
The Cubs’ always planned on monitoring his workload as the season winded down, and especially in a year in which they weren’t going to be competing for a playoff spot at season’s end, this was the time to do it. No, putting him on the shelf wasn’t their ideal scenario in which to control his workload. Regardless, the Cubs have ensured that, barring any other ailment that pops up over the next two weeks, Thompson will indeed experience getting to the finish line.
“It’s nice to get a couple more outings in under my belt here at the end of the year,” Thompson said Sunday after his lone rehab outing on Friday. “It’s nice to hopefully end on a high note.”
Soon, the Cubs hope, two of their other rising stars will join him.
Justin Steele and Nico Hoerner are currently dealing with injuries of their own as the Cubs approach the end of the season. Steele has been on the shelf since the end of August and is currently on the 15-day IL with lower-back tightness, while Hoerner hasn’t played since Sept. 11 while dealing with a right triceps strain (which the Cubs said an MRI over the weekend showed to be mild to moderate).
Considering Steele’s major league career has followed a similar path to Thompson’s, this is also his first chance to get to the end a full season and go into the offseason healthy. Hoerner isn’t exactly in the same boat, but given the fact that his first two full years in the big leagues were the 60-game season in 2020 and a 2021 in which injuries limited him to just 44 games, he’s still trying to make it to the finish line of a full 162, too.
The Cubs haven’t ruled out returns for either of them, though as the number of games left ticks down, there isn’t a whole lot of time for them to come back this season. However, there have been positive developments in each of their recoveries. Hoerner is doing baseball activities and said he played catch from 90 feet Sunday. Steele had thrown a bullpen during the Cubs’ recent trip to New York.
There’s no guarantee either returns this season, but there’s certainly reason to expect them to — and like Thompson, both see the benefit in playing again before the year is over.
Said Hoerner: “I mean, if there’s an opportunity to be healthy and on the field playing Major League Baseball, I’m gonna do that. I think the staff is on the same page with that.”
Said Steele: “I’d say the most important thing is going into the offseason healthy, but for me, I’m a competitor. I definitely wanna keep pitching, especially the way my arm’s been feeling. My arm feels great. I definitely wanna keep pitching and keep showing what I can do.”
No, the Cubs never saw a reason in rushing any of those three players back.
Their play this season has already confirmed that each of them can be key contributors to future competitive Cubs teams; Hoerner brings a consistent bat and Gold Glove-caliber middle infield defense to the table, Steele has pretty much locked down a rotation spot moving forward and Thompson appears to be an exceptional, multi-inning relief weapon at the very least. There’s not much left to prove over the last couple weeks of the season, and there’s no postseason the Cubs need to make sure the three are back for.
But again, getting to the end on their own terms has its benefits.
There’s always going to be a risk of injury no matter how healthy a player is. Just ask Hoerner, whose only stint on the IL so far this season came as a result of a collision with an umpire. But as long as they’ve recovered to the point that they’re not risking re-aggravating their injuries, there’s no reason not to let them finish out the year on the field.
Thompson got to the point already, and if Steele and Hoerner get there, too, the Cubs should let them play.
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