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Once touted Cubs prospect Duane Underwood Jr. took long ‘journey’ to reach debut

LOS ANGELES – It was only after Duane Underwood Jr. stopped thinking about getting to the big leagues that he started to arrive.

Not thinking, really. More obsessing at times, getting angry at times, wondering when – even if – it was going to happen.

“All those things. They creep into your mind and those thoughts come out,” he said. “You get aggravated, you get upset. It brings up a ton of emotions that come into it.

“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t loving the game,” he said, “but the game was becoming very frustrating. Things weren’t going my way, and I was playing the blame game instead of just looking in the mirror. …I think I’m on the right path right now.”

That was part of a conversation with the Cubs’ 23-year-old pitching prospect during spring training.

Less than four months later, the right-hander made his big-league debut Monday night against the defending National League champions, and after a hairy, nervous first inning, he got through four impressive innings, allowing only one run in a 2-1 loss at Dodger Stadium.

Remember the name, because Underwood will be back.

Filling in for Tyler Chatwood for a start while Chatwood took paternity leave, Underwood is headed back to Class AAA Iowa for now.

The next time the Cubs call him, he could be vying to become the first homegrown starting pitcher to develop into a rotation piece for the Cubs since Theo Epstein took over the operation in the fall of 2011.

In Monday’s four-inning glimpse, the Cubs’ second-round pick in Epstein’s first draft in 2012 showed the kind of promise the Cubs have talked about for years, flashing a mid-90s fastball and an especially effective changeup during his 77-pitch start – 41 pitches coming during a scoreless first inning.

“Duane did his job,” said manager Joe Maddon, who only lifted him because the Cubs needed a hitter in the fifth with two on and two out in a 1-0 game. “That first inning was tough. It’s pretty difficult to throw 41 pitches and give up no runs. That’s almost impossible. What he did was wonderful.”

After getting Yasmani Grandal on a drive to the warning track to center fielder Albert Almora Jr. to leave bases loaded in the first, Underwood glanced at the sky and let out a deep breath as he walked off the mound.

“That third-deck thing that everybody talks about, that’s a real thing,” he said.

Underwood, drafted 61 spots after the Cubs took Almora with the sixth overall pick, was a 17-year-old high school kid from Georgia when he started the six-year, 11-stop minor-league Odyssey that led to Dodger Stadium on Monday night.

“It’s been a journey,” said Underwood, who reset his career again after conversations with the front office coming out of last season. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of grinding, a lot of messing up, a lot of mistakes made. But I made my debut, and it’s just crazy. Just crazy.”

Underwood calls it a “maturation process” that included a different level of discipline and a different focus on his offseason workouts. More important, he said, was a “stay in the present” shift in mentality that kept the impatience and aggravation from creeping back in.

“He reinvented himself the last couple years,” Maddon said. “He adopted a new work ethic, gotten himself in better shape. He’s a much more focused individual. And that’s why he’s here.”

It didn’t look like it was going to last even four innings during the rocky first inning.

He struck out the first batter he faced, Joc Pederson, swinging at a changeup, but walked Max Muncy, and gave up a line single to Justin Turner – after throwing a changeup over Turner’s head during the at-bat.

Then came a popup by Cody Bellinger and then the at-bat of the inning, an epic, 14-pitch battle with Matt Kemp that ended in a walk to load the bases.

“For me it was poetry in motion, going back and forth with that guy,” he said. “That was just a great at-bat for me, especially since I idolized the guy growing up.”

He got out of it on the Grandal fly, then came back and gave up a leadoff homer to Enrique Hernandez in the second before finishing by retiring eight of the final nine he faced (erasing a walk with a double play).

“I don’t know if it was nerves, but I did turn around at one point and realize there were three guys on base,” he said. “After that it was just slowing the game down again.

“I had a blast.”

“Aside from the nerves which I think we all understand, I think he’ll be all right,” said catcher Chris Gimenez, who caught Underwood for a month at Iowa this season and was behind the plate Monday.

“I’m excited for him. He’s worked his butt off this year and really started to take that next step before I left, and now he’s getting his opportunity up here.”

Underwood soaked it in. His parents and godparents made the trip, and before the game he walked around the field, taking pictures.

“Not a whole lot of sleep went down,” he said of his reaction to the news from AAA manager Marty Pevey on Sunday. “Adrenaline was going since I found out. Ever since then it’s just been kind of wheels been turning. [Family] kind of helped me shift my mind away from baseball.

“After that I was just kind of able to hone in, and once I got to the ballpark and step onto the field, it’s just baseball.”

Teammates were impressed with his poise and performance.

“He was unbelievable,” Ian Happ said. “This is not an easy place to debut, especially on the bump.”

Maybe that goes back to the conversations after last season. Maybe it goes back to the way Underwood prepared in spring training.

“The chips will fall where they will,” he said then. “I just want to put myself in the best spot to be in so at the time they call me up I’m ready and I can do everything I can to stay up there.”