‘Best version of himself’: Cubs add reliever Brendon Little as substitute player in Toronto

Since July 4, lefty Brendon Little has posted a 1.06 ERA in Triple-A.

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TORONTO — Left-hander Brendon Little tinkers. Sometimes too much. But when a stress reaction in his elbow last November wiped out most of his Arizona Fall League season and offseason, he came into the spring without time to waste. 

“That’s been good, to be able to take a step back and just really focus in,” he said Monday.

This weekend, Little had the conversation he had been working for. Triple-A Iowa pitching coach Ron Villone called him into manager Marty Pevey’s office and handed him a sheet of paper that listed “the dos and don’ts of a first-time big-leaguer.” 

On Monday, the Cubs selected Little as a substitute player for the series with the Blue Jays. They put pitchers Justin Steele and Adrian Sampson on the restricted list for the trip. 

The Cubs will get a second replacement-player slot Tuesday for the rest of the series. Teams cannot substitute a player for a starting pitcher on the restricted list for three days after his last outing of at least four innings. Right-hander Jeremiah Estrada is with the team as a member of the taxi squad. 

Little is the latest pitcher to be called up as the Cubs examine their pitching depth with an eye on next season. Javier Assad, who held the Blue Jays to no runs and four hits in five innings in the Cubs’ 5-4 loss in 11 innings Monday, was another. 

With that start and his debut last week against the Cardinals, Assad became the first major-league pitcher in the modern era to log scoreless starts against teams who were 10 or more games over .500 in his first two career appearances, according to Stats Perform.

“When that depth starts competing now with guys that are homegrown, that’s when you know the health of your organization on the pitching side is strong,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And it’s fun.” 

Little, whom the Cubs selected No. 27 overall in the 2017 draft, marveled at how much he has evolved as a pitcher throughout his time in the organization.

“It’s tough changing your identity as a pitcher,” he said. “It’s hard going through injuries, going to rehab. The biggest thing is just kind of like the mental drag. You see everyone else going out there, having fun, succeeding. So, obviously, you want to get out there. But the biggest thing has just been finding my strength.”

Once a pitcher who relied on his four-seam fastball up in the zone, Little now throws mostly sinkers. To pair with it, he has a breaking ball that Hottovy compared to Steele’s. 

“What we’ve seen is a guy who learned what his best version of himself is,” Hottovy said. “He knows the two pitches that make him successful.”

In a way, Little’s elbow injury last fall helped him get there. He said he couldn’t start throwing again until January. He decided to focus on two pitches.  

“It was just a little too much noise drawing focus away from the pitches that played really well to both hitters, both sides of the plate,” he said.  

Little has been on a roll the last two months with a 1.06 ERA since July 4. 

“Getting real swing-and-miss in the zone,” manager David Ross said. “Somebody we get kind of a free look at. . . . You can tell he’s worked on his game, worked on his body, looks like he’s in a really good place.”

Little arrived at Rogers Centre early Monday, put on a pair of headphones and sat in the bullpen.

“I walked out the gate a couple of times, looked around then, so I don’t have to when I’m going in the game,” he said. “Just tried to stay focused.”

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