MESA, Ariz. — It might not have looked like much, that nondescript fourth inning of a spring-training game in February against the Padres.
But you won’t convince Cubs reliever Brian Duensing of that.
“That inning was very big for me both physically and mentally,” he said of the scoreless frame in his spring debut.
Duensing, the veteran left-hander who had the best season of his career as an integral part of the Cubs’ 2017 bullpen, returned on a two-year contract last year.
And then he had the worst season of his career, beset with a series of physical issues while losing his grandfather and going on the bereavement list for four games.
“It was just a giant crap storm, really,” he said.
For a Cubs team that had little left in their payroll budget to spend on bullpen help this winter, a healthy Duensing might look a lot like a key offseason acquisition if he can come anywhere near the form that produced a 2.74 ERA and nearly nine strikeouts per nine innings in 68 appearances two years ago.
“I think there’s a good opportunity for me, a good opportunity to be a reliable source down there,” said Duensing, 36. “That’s what I felt like in ’17.”
That’s where that inning against the Padres comes in. He opened by striking out two of their regulars, gave up an infield single on a grounder to third, then finished with another grounder to third for the final out.
He followed that Thursday with a 1-2-3 inning against the A’s.
“He looks like that,” manager Joe Maddon said of the 2017 version. “The easy delivery, the strike throwing off of that, the breaking ball is sharp. He just looks normal.
“Last year he was trying so many different things. He was constantly trying to reinvent himself on the mound. Whenever somebody does that, it normally doesn’t go well.”
That was largely a byproduct of a shoulder impingement, biceps tendinitis, a bad reaction to medication at one point and two trips to the disabled list in 2018.
“The way I was feeling physically, nothing felt right, so then I started compensating, trying to find ways to feel like I did the year before and created a lot of bad habits,” Duensing said. “It was kind of like quicksand.”
With renewed health and the early confidence spurred by some quick work early in camp, he’s at least no longer sinking and might even be ready to make people remember him again.
“I don’t necessarily feel like the forgotten guy or overlooked,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of those overlooked guys just in general my whole career. Which is good. I’m not like an All-Star or anything like that. I try to get the job done as quickly as I can.
“Last year was rough all the way around,” he added. “But this year I’m more just trying to prove to myself that two years ago wasn’t a fluke. Trying to prove I can still do it. Not that I doubt that I can do it. Just that last year was terrible, and just trying to get back.”