Cubs starter Keegan Thompson needed less than a minute to strike out the Reds’ Joey Votto to end the fourth inning Tuesday night.
He started with a low curveball. Whiff.
Cutter. Ball, inside.
Four-seamer, almost the same spot. Foul.
Cutter at the top of the zone. Whiff. Strike three.
Only 58 seconds had elapsed.
“I think, naturally, when you’re doing well, you want to get back on the mound and keep going,” Thompson said earlier this week.
He maintained his up-tempo delivery through a career-high 6⅓ innings in the opener of a three-game series against the Reds, charged with eight hits and four runs and taking the loss as the Cubs fell 5-3.
Thompson (7-3), who held the Pirates and Braves to one or fewer runs through six innings in his last two starts, has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this stretch, bouncing back from three rough first starts after joining the rotation.
While his pitch mix — more fastballs and the addition of a slider — has played into some success lately, the bigger picture is that his development has been nonlinear. His rough patch after a lights-out start to the season wasn’t a sign of regression but rather part of a process to become more effective over the long haul as a starter.
“Being a multi-inning reliever is a different task than being a starter that’s going to try and eat up 150-plus innings for us,” Cubs assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said. “So, being able to be efficient, maintain his delivery, prevent some injury risk there — all of those things are going to benefit in the long run.”
To get there, the Cubs slowed things down for Thompson and identified checkpoints for a consistent delivery. But in-season adjustments are tricky. And a starting pitcher can’t let tweaks during the week throw him out of sync on start days.
“Your game day is, ‘Go have fun and attack and compete,’ ” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We’ll reevaluate after, and we’ll try to find ways during the game to make the adjustments if we feel like we need to.”
Thompson’s athleticism and ability to attack the zone and adjust on the fly make him special. Hottovy saw the 27-year-old losing some of that as he homed in on other things such as stride length and arm position.
“We were trying to do small movements [one] at a time,” Thompson said. “And for me, we just needed to get back into moving as quickly as possible, instead of slowing things down, to get my arm in the correct spot, so that when things aren’t going correctly, I know that even if things aren’t in sync mechanically, I know how to get my arm to the right spot.”
Through that process of breaking Thompson’s delivery into components and then speeding it back up, he’s now hitting his checkpoints without thinking about them. His quicker delivery has gone hand-in-hand with an up-tempo pace from pitch to pitch.
“Him thinking about being a little more up-tempo, it shows you how confident he is right now,” Hottovy said.
Thompson didn’t allow a runner into scoring position until the sixth inning Tuesday, when he gave up a pair of runs on back-to-back doubles by Brandon Drury and Donovan Solano. The next inning, he allowed two one-out singles to Albert Almora Jr. and Nick Senzel. Both scored when reliever Rowan Wick came in for Thompson and gave up a three-run home run to Reds leadoff hitter Jonathan India.