Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson high-fived a line of fellow relievers in left field as he headed for the dugout and they strode out to the bullpen. Usually, he’d be going with them this close to game time, but not Tuesday.
Thompson made his second start in a week in the Cubs’ 7-0 win over the Pirates at Wrigley Field.
Manager David Ross reiterated after Thompson’s last start that for now the club likes the 27-year-old in a multi-inning relief role. And Thompson has thrived in that role to start the season. He entered the game with the lowest ERA (1.17 in seven relief appearances) of any major-league reliever with at least 20 innings this season.
“There’s real value in bringing that guy back every three or four days rather than five,” Ross said Tuesday. “The value he’s bringing, and a lot of the reasons why we’ve been in games and been able to fluctuate how guys are healthy and ease guys into the mix, has been [in a large] part because Keegan’s had a lot of success. . . . He’s definitely starter depth for us, but he’s also really valuable in the role he’s been filling for us.”
The Cubs again needed someone to open a bullpen day, and Thompson was a natural choice.
He threw five scoreless innings.
“This guy over here is something else,” catcher Willson Contreras said after the game, pointing to Thompson at his nearby locker. “This guy can pitch from the bullpen and can start some ballgames. Attacking the zone early in the count, making the right pitch, executing with two strikes, that was making him really good.”
In an efficient outing, Thompson allowed four hits and didn’t walk a batter. A couple inning-ending double plays helped speed along his start even more.
Thompson faced the minimum in the first inning, thanks to a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play. In the fourth inning, Pirates designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach tried to tag on a fly ball to right field, but Seiya Suzuki’s throw beat him by several steps.
Vogelbach and Contreras, who were minor-league teammates coming up through the Cubs’ farm system, exchanged words after the tag at the plate. Benches briefly cleared.
“It kind of surprised me, to be honest,” Contreras said. “Suzuki made a great throw, I put the tag on him, and I was just basically checking on him.”
The Pirates’ defense gave the Cubs a boost with a series of miscues in the fourth inning, when the Cubs put together a five-run rally, their biggest of the game. They also scored on homers from Jonathan Villar, his first as a Cub, and Christopher Morel, in his first major-league at-bat.
Thompson’s success in his last two starts has come in part from sticking with the mentality and routine that’s worked all season. For both starts, he got warm in the bullpen as if he was getting the call in the middle of a game.
“I’ve started before, but the whole year I’ve been on a bullpen routine,” he said last week after limiting the Padres to two runs in four innings, “so I didn’t want to change something up today just for one outing.”
It ended up being two starts in a row. On Tuesday, Thompson’s five innings were a season high for him. He handed the ball over with a six-run lead.
Left-handed reliever Daniel Norris replaced Thompson to start the sixth inning, but Norris walked off the field with an athletic trainer after four pitches with right achilles soreness.
Left-hander Brandon Hughes took over, making his major-league debut. He struck out five in 1⅔ innings. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. finished off the shutout of the Pirates with two scoreless innings.