Cubs

Justin case? Wilson pitching like a ninth-inning option for Cubs

WASHINGTON — Could Justin Wilson be the answer to the Cubs’ ninth-inning question if Brandon Morrow can’t return from injury in time for the playoffs — or if Morrow is limited enough to need help closing?

Yes, that Justin Wilson.

“We talked about this a lot in spring training, that he could be the linchpin to this whole season in the bullpen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And right now, he’s demonstrating that.”

Maddon said in recent days that he’s “very comfortable” with the idea of using the one-time Tigers closer in a closing situation, and Wilson showed a glimpse Thursday night. He took over a 4-4 game with one out in the eighth and runners at second and third and struck out the Nationals’ Mark Reynolds, who already had homered and singled in the game. He then got Wilmer Difo on a drive to left to end the threat.

Justin Wilson

“That moment’s the game,” Maddon said of the Cubs’ eventual 10-inning victory. “He got ready fast, he came out and he threw strikes. Really quality strikes, exactly where he wanted to.”

That’s a 180-degree difference from where Wilson was headed this time a year ago. Acquired from the Tigers in a trade-deadline deal to help shore up the bullpen for the stretch run and playoffs, the hard-throwing left-hander had trouble throwing strikes almost from the moment he arrived. He was almost an afterthought on the first-round playoff roster — pitching only the final two outs of a 5-0 loss — and was left off the roster in the next round.

“I’m a little bit freer out there,” said Wilson, who has become one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers. “Truthfully, when I struggled, my mentality on the mound didn’t really change. I wanted to be out there and stay aggressive. I was just in a real bad spot mechanically — partly mentally, but mainly mechanically.”

In two months as a Cub last year, he walked 19 in 17‰ innings, with a 5.09 ERA.

“I feel my attitude didn’t really change out there a year ago, but it wasn’t as fun,” he said.

Fun? A slight mechanical fix and a renewed confidence this year have led to a 2.84 ERA and a streak of 14 appearances without a walk (his last one came Aug. 7).

And this: Nobody in the majors has stranded a higher percentage of runners than Wilson, with 29 of his 31 inherited runners (93 percent) kept from the plate.

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The Cubs remain hopeful that Morrow (elbow) can return in time to be a ninth-inning factor, if not a force, in October. If not, Maddon plans to stick to the closer-by-committee approach he has used since the All-Star break, which so far has meant Pedro Strop getting most of the save chances.

But Wilson’s swing-and-miss power potential could increasingly come into play. The Cubs will be trying to navigate the playoffs without the kind of leaned-on closer they had in Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Wade Davis last year.

“Chappy spoiled us a couple of years ago, and then Wade the same thing last year,” Maddon said. “It more than likely will be different. I’m not going to push [Morrow] when he comes back. But all the other guys are getting some pretty good work in right now.”

If anyone else still holds last year against Wilson, or cringes when his name is used in the same sentence as the word “closer,” Maddon isn’t one of those people.

“He worried for a while, but he never cried or complained,” Maddon said. “His concept was, ‘I need to pitch better.’ ”

Is that happening at the perfect moment? Is Wilson thinking, or even preparing, for ninth-inning work?

“No,” said Wilson, who points to the Cubs’ depth of late-inning choices. “Right now, we hope B-Mo gets back as soon as he can, and Pedro has done an outstanding job for us in the closer’s role. Other than that, I’ll pitch when my name’s called.”