Cubs’ Keegan Thompson plays ‘extremely valuable’ role in Cubs’ bullpen, win vs. Rays

Thompson went 3⅔ scoreless innings Monday against the Rays. He hasn’t allowed a run in three relief appearances this season.

SHARE Cubs’ Keegan Thompson plays ‘extremely valuable’ role in Cubs’ bullpen, win vs. Rays
Cubs relief pitcher Keegan Thompson is off to a strong start in a multi-inning relief role this season.

Cubs relief pitcher Keegan Thompson is off to a strong start in a multi-inning relief role this season.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Keegan Thompson exhaled as he strode across the field to the dugout, his breath a plume in the cold night air at Wrigley Field.

In what would become a 4-2 win for the Cubs, the right-hander had just thrown 3⅔ scoreless innings against the Rays and given his team time to come back from a tie ballgame.

“Sometimes you feel like relievers can be the momentum of the game when they come in, if they slow things down, they throw strikes, how long the count goes,” manager David Ross said. “He comes in, he pounds the zone, he works quick. Runners get on, he’s quick to the plate. He’s got multiple weapons.”

Multi-inning relievers are always valuable. But the unique circumstances of this season have heightened the importance of Thompson’s role.

Coming out of a shortened spring training, most starters weren’t fully built up to start the season. And injuries to Wade Miley, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay dealt a further blow to the rotation.

“I think being able to use a guy when you are in a tight game or have leverage that can go two or three innings is extremely valuable,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We have other guys out there, too, that we feel like they can do that. But Keegan’s just proven over and over now that he could handle that moment and that role.”

That started during Thompson’s whirlwind 2021 season. He debuted in May, served primarily as a multi-inning reliever, went back down to Triple-A to stretch out to starter’s innings, battled fatigue coming off the canceled 2020 minor-league season, went on the IL with what the Cubs called right shoulder inflammation and finished on a high note in St. Louis.

Through all that back-and forth last year, Thompson recorded a 2.43 ERA as a reliever.

“You’re just trying to help the team win in any way you can,” Thompson said this spring. “So no matter what that role is this year, I’m just trying to stay healthy.”

Entering Monday, Thompson pitched over two innings in each of his first two outings and hadn’t allowed a run.

“We still think he can start, there’s a lot of things we think he can do,” Hottovy said last week. “But this role right now as we get into the season has seemed to work out well for him like it did last year.”

On Monday, Thompson maintained his pristine ERA through a third relief appearance and recorded a season-high five strikeouts. He became the first Cubs reliever since 2011 (Marcos Mateo) to allow two or fewer baserunners in at least 3 2/3 innings.

Thompson replaced starter Kyle Hendricks with one out in the fifth inning. The Rays had just tied the game at 2-2. Runners stood on first and third, the go-ahead run 90 feet from home plate.

The first pitch Thompson threw was a cutter at the bottom of the strike zone to Randy Arozarena, who pounded it into the ground for an inning-ending double play.

“Aggressive, coming right at guys, strike one,” Hendricks said of Thompson. “That’s pitching. I need to do more of that.”

Thompson’s efficient night included a strike-three curveball to Ji-Man Choi that fooled him so thoroughly he stumbled out of the batter’s box.

“He was unreal tonight, man,” Hendricks said. “He has been the whole season so far.”

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