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One of the most consistent qualities of Keegan Thompson’s major league career thus far has been his ability to step up and fill in a variety of roles on the Cubs’ pitching staff. In his 11 appearances so far this season, Thompson has pitched in every inning of a ballgame. He has pitched in relief as early as the second inning on two different occasions, and Thompson has made three starts in the rotation.
Most recently, on what was supposed to be Wade Miley’s night to start against the White Sox on Saturday, Thompson stepped in and delivered the longest outing of his big-league career. One that helped pave the way for a 5-1 win over the southsiders.
Miley was scratched with a sore shoulder, an injury he downplayed, saying it was normal in-season soreness and insisting, “I’m not hurt.”
Stepping in for Miley, Thompson went 5 innings and threw 77 pitches while holding the White Sox offense to a single run – Jake Burger’s solo homerun to left center in the fifth inning. This was his highest pitch total in the majors to date, and despite not looking his sharpest, Thompson scattered the five baserunners he allowed.
“I felt like I was kind of all over the place and not really hitting a ton of spots,” Thompson said. “I just got a little lucky and missed a lot of barrels. I had that one curveball that hung up and they didn’t miss it. That was the one pitch that hurt me today, but for the most part I felt like I got pretty lucky.”
Thompson said he followed his normal pregame routine, warming up in the bullpen about a half hour before the game, but he felt like he was missing with his pitches through all five innings. Some of this may have worked to his advantage; the Sox offense can be guilty of being either too patient or too aggressive, and he may have benefited some on Saturday from an approach that played to the defense behind Thompson.
That, and a Sox offense that is struggling to find its footing as the season approaches the one-third mark. The Sox rank 28th in the league in runs scored and have a -46 run differential.
“The defense was great behind me, I just felt like they missed some pitches in the strike zone,” Thompson said. “I just didn’t hit a ton of spots and just got away with a couple poor pitches. They’re free swingers, and I kind of worked backwards to keep them off balance, and I got some weak contact and tried to get them out early.”
Thompson relied most on his fastball and cutter and used his curveball as his primary off-speed pitch. Though he had increased his changeup use in his most recent outings, Thompson shied away from it Saturday. The pitch mix worked, even if Thompson wasn’t feeling like he was hitting his spots. Sox batters finished with a 33% hard hit rate against Thompson, but they were at just over 25% through the first four innings. Burger’s home run helped boost that number.
Regardless of how he felt about his performance on Saturday, getting the kind of results Thompson got against a tough offense – even if they’re not hitting to their potential yet this season – is a valuable confidence booster for the young pitcher.
“Then when you’re hitting spots and doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then you feel like it’s just going to be even better,” Thompson said.
With nine games coming in the next seven days at Wrigley Field, including doubleheaders against the Brewers on Monday and against the Cardinals next Saturday, Thompson could be needed to make another start or two. Miley was adamant Saturday that he felt “great” after doing some throwing, and he said the plan is that he will do long-toss on Sunday and throw a bullpen session on Monday. Miley does not believe the shoulder soreness will lead to another IL stint.
Manager David Ross is less optimistic.
“We’ll see how things play out,” Ross said. “He’s got to throw a bullpen, and we’ll see how that goes, play some catch.”
That leaves room that even a cautious approach – one that skips Miley’s next turn and avoids an IL trip – will give Thompson another look as a starter. Elbow inflammation kept Miley out of the Cubs rotation until May 10, so it might pay for Ross and the Cubs to be cautious about pushing his shoulder soreness.
But his workload Saturday probably means that Thompson won’t factor into the rotation discussion again until much later in the homestand.
“We’re going to have to give him some days off after that many pitches, so we’ll look at it,” Ross said. “We’ve got a lot of things to shuffle around coming up with a lot of games, but we’ll look at that for sure.”
The next few days will tell whether Thompson’s next shot at starting comes sooner rather than later. His flexibility as a pitcher has been an asset to the Cubs all season, but Thompson has shown in his three starts this season that his best role might be in the rotation.
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