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Cubs see Duane Underwood Jr. coming into his own

3 years agoTony Andracki

Duane Underwood Jr. corrected himself before he could even finish his thought.

“I come in here and hopefully I can keep doing my job — not hopefully, I’m gonna keep doing my job,” Underwood said.

The 26-year-old pitcher was talking early in the Cubs’ last road trip about how he was thrust into a game in Detroit in the 2nd inning. After Tyler Chatwood loaded the bases with a pair of 1-out walks, Underwood came on and kept his team in the game with back-to-back swinging strikeouts.

The Cubs ultimately lost that night to the Tigers, but that situation and the interview moment a couple hours later provided a glimpse into the competitive fire and budding confidence of Underwood as he looks to carve out a larger role for himself in the Cubs bullpen. He doesn’t want to leave anything to luck or “hope.”

Underwood has had an uneven journey to the big leagues after the Cubs made him one of the first players drafted in the Theo Epstein regime (2nd round, 2012). He made his MLB debut in 2018 in a spot start and then appeared in 12 games out of the bullpen last season in two separate stints with the big-league club.

Last season, Underwood flashed his immense potential (striking out all 6 batters he faced in his 2019 debut on Aug. 6) but also struggled at times with hard contact, giving up 6 hits and 2 homers over his final 2 appearances.

The Cubs gave him a spot in the 2020 Opening Day bullpen and he’s worked mostly in low leverage situations. Opposing hitters batted .304 off him in his first 4 appearances as he gave up 6 runs in 6 innings.

But a conversation with manager David Ross during pregame warm-ups a couple weeks ago helped Underwood turn a corner.

After allowing 3 runs in 2.1 innings against the Royals on Aug. 6, Underwood didn’t see game action for nearly two weeks (which included an impromptu weekend off for the Cubs in St. Louis).

In 9 outings since that extended break, the righty has struck out nearly half the batters he’s faced (16 of 37) while walking only 1. He did give up a pair of homers to the White Sox in a game during that stretch (Aug. 22), but has limited batters to just a .222 average overall in those 9.2 innings.

Since Aug. 17 (Underwood’s first appearance following his layoff), his peripherals point to a guy who has been throwing the ball as well as anybody on the Cubs staff.

He gave up a leadoff single in the 8th inning Sunday but then set down the top of the Cardinals order, including a strikeout of Paul Goldschmidt to end the frame.

“I think he’s coming in to his own of knowing what he needs to do to have success,” Ross said. “We’ve talked to him about that, without sharing too many details about what we think works best for him and his history and I think he’s getting to a place where he’s understanding that a little more.

“We’ve had multiple conversations and a good one probably about two to three weeks ago in the outfield, where I feel like he feels really comfortable in his pitch mix and how to use it. That has a lot to do with it. And obviously going out there and doing it, having success and being able to mix your pitches the right way, getting big-time hitters out in big situations is a confidence-builder.”

With a fastball that sits 94-95 mph and a dynamic changeup, Underwood has shown an ability to generate a lot of swing and miss while keeping opposing hitters off balance.

As the Cubs look to piece together their best bullpen for the stretch run, Underwood’s stock is pointing up.

He still might have some maturation and development left, but he feels like he’s taken a big step forward in that regard.

After working almost exclusively as a starting pitcher in the Cubs minor-league system, Underwood moved to the bullpen last season and has absorbed all he can from the veteran relievers. One such lesson was how to stay ready whenever the manager calls his number, from the 2nd inning (like in Detroit) to the late innings.

“This game’s hard already and this is also a mental grind, but to stay in it and to be consistent with what you do and what your routine is has definitely been a big thing that’s helped out my game for sure,” Underwood said. “That’s what I hope to continue moving forward.”

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