In his mind, Justin Wilson can transport himself right back into the moment of his first major-league postseason appearance.
It was the 2013 divisional round, and Wilson, pitching the seventh and eighth innings of Game 4 for the Pirates, was charged with holding a feisty Cardinals lineup right where it was. He struck out Matt Carpenter on three pitches to end his first inning. He blew away Matt Adams to end his second.
Two innings, zero hits, zero walks, three strikeouts in all. Anyone who’d watched Wilson perform the previous six months had to be unsurprised. The Pirates ended up losing the series, but Wilson, then 26, could hang his hat knowing he’d had a heck of a rookie season.
Four years later, the power lefty is bent on finishing a season well — and delivering in the postseason — for his fourth team, the Cubs.
“Oh, man, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “That’s the only thing I play for. I am very confident that I can do that. That hasn’t wavered.”
But Wilson has experienced a failure to launch in his brief time on the North Side, widening the chasm in the Cubs’ bullpen between what is and what was supposed to be.
When he was acquired along with catcher Alex Avila in a July 31 trade with the Tigers, Wilson — who’d been closing games in Detroit — was looked at as a high-leverage guy and a vital bridge to closer Wade Davis. His first three weeks with the Cubs, though, were like amateur hour.
Things are hard enough with Hector Rondon’s sore elbow, Koji Uehara’s infected knee and Justin Grimm’s seasonlong unreliability. With Wilson’s fastball command in disarray, the team’s bullpen — even with Davis 31-for-31 in save chances — sometimes resembles a bridge on the verge of collapse.
Wilson appeared to get his groove back in late August, striking out seven, walking none and allowing only one hit in a 5„-inning, five-outing stretch, but his struggles have bubbled back up in September. Can the Cubs count on him as they hit the road for a 10-game trip that includes four games each in Milwaukee and St. Louis? Has the ship already sailed as far as Wilson’s chance to prove he should be a significant part of the team’s postseason plans?
“Man, he could be the linchpin of a lot of this stuff right here,” manager Joe Maddon said. “If we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs.”
One big believer in Wilson is Davis. The pair has clicked away from the park, tending not to talk much baseball. In the bullpen, though, Davis has taken note of Wilson’s dynamic arm and resilient demeanor.
“It’s not like the guy is searching for anything,” Davis said. “He’s a confident guy. There’s nobody better than him, in his mind, and that’s definitely a good thing. I think he’s the piece that’s going to solidify us as we move forward.”
Wilson’s most recent appearance, in the series-opening victory Friday against the Cardinals, was a ray of hope. Entering amid chaos after the ejections of John Lackey and catcher Willson Contreras, Wilson faced a key left-handed batter — old friend Carpenter — and struck him out.
The start of a really good story?
“I hope so,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep going. It’s a game of failure. When you suck, it sucks. When you’re doing well, it’s great. I’m ready for it to be great.”
Cubs at Rays
Tuesday: Mike Montgomery (6-8, 3.57) vs. Chris Archer (9-10, 4.06), 6:10 p.m., CSN, 670-AM
Wednesday: Jon Lester (11-7, 4.30) vs. Blake Snell (3-6, 4.25), 6:10 p.m., Ch. 9, 670-AM
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