Keegan Thompson working to become an X-factor for Cubs bullpen down the stretch
Coming into this season, the Cubs envisioned Keegan Thompson playing a major role on their pitching staff.
David Ross has called Thompson a weapon out of the bullpen and the 28-year-old right-hander was exactly that early in the year with an 0.68 ERA in his first 8 outings (13.1 innings) in which he limited the opposition to a .048 batting average.
But even in those dominant outings, Thompson still struggled with his control (10 walks in 13.1 innings) and he allowed 9 runs over his next 7 games. The Cubs ultimately optioned Thompson to Triple-A Iowa following a meltdown in Houston on May 17 in which he gave up 3 runs and did not record an out.
Then it was radio silence on Thompson for the next three months as he worked to get himself back on track physically and mentally in the minor leagues.
That is until last weekend, when he was promoted back to the majors after a solid stretch of outings in Triple-A.
Thompson’s first game back was impressive, striking out 5 batters in 2 shutout innings to close out Sunday’s victory in Pittsburgh:
In his first MLB outing since May 17, Keegan Thompson was absolutely dominant.— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) August 27, 2023
5 Ks in 2 shutout IP.
How big would that be for Cubs bullpen if they got him back as a relief weapon? pic.twitter.com/jPv1UhUq0a
It showed what he’s capable of when he’s at his best and it also served as a reminder of what kind of weapon Thompson can be in the Cubs bullpen. With his ability to cover multiple innings, Ross can trot him out to cover the final few frames of a game and give the rest of the bullpen a reset.
On Sunday, that meant giving the Cubs’ top relief arms (Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr.) a day off ahead of a crucial 3-game series against the division-leading Brewers.
“To be able to see what that looks like outside of just his Triple-A video that you get to watch, it was really crisp,” Ross said. “Looked like he was pounding the zone with multiple pitches, on the attack. Stuff looked like it was good, sharp. Confident out there on the mound.
“And then just being able to reset those guys before this series against Milwaukee here, right before the off-day where we’ve played a lot of tight games was nice.”
Thompson admitted it was a struggle for him in the minor leagues. He was not only dealing with the demotion but also had to get used to an automatic strike zone instead of umpires calling pitches.
He believes that contributed in part to his poor performance on the mound — 13.09 ERA, 17 walks in his first 11 innings with Triple-A.
“It was a struggle,” he said. “Leaned on my family and just talking to them, they would give me the confidence I needed if I was struggling with confidence at the time. Using the support system I had.”
Thompson was also dealing with a back injury, landed on the IL in mid-June and ultimately missed a month.
When he returned, he felt a lot more like his usual self — mentally and physically.
“Came back feeling better and stronger and just started throwing more strikes,” Thompson said.
Even with the struggles this spring, Thompson still has very good numbers as a reliever in his career (2.41 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.6 K/9) while averaging nearly 2 innings per appearance out of the bullpen.
If the Cubs can get that guy back in the bullpen, it could be a gamechanger down the stretch, especially for a team currently dealing with some key injuries on the pitching staff.
As he works his way back to the relief weapon he used to be, Thompson acknowledged his outing Sunday will go a long way.
“That was huge for me,” he said. “It was a good confidence boost. Just happy to be back out on the mound in the big leagues again.”
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