Cubs’ homegrown pitching taking on plenty of responsibility down the stretch

The Cubs lost 6-2 Thursday in their series opener against the Diamondbacks.

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Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson punched the air, then punched the inside of his glove.

In a game the Cubs would lose 6-2 to the Diamondbacks, Thompson had replaced starter Javier Assad with a runner on third and one out in the sixth inning. And he had just induced a double play to get out of the inning unscathed.

The last couple of games have made clear just how much the Cubs have relied on homegrown pitching and will continue to down the stretch.

“It’s really good for the organization,” Assad said. “It’s really good to see, for sure.”

Despite flashes, Thursday wasn’t the pitching staff’s cleanest showing. Assad, who has been a steady presence in the rotation while Marcus Stroman has been injured, was battling his command and giving up hard contact. But he still only allowed three runs in 5⅓ innings. Thompson held Arizona at bay for 1⅔ innings before giving up a two-run homer in the eighth.

The day before, in the series finale against the Giants, lefty Jordan Wicks took the ball, and fellow rookies Daniel Palencia and Luke Little appeared in relief, combining to hold San Francisco to two runs. Little was making his major-league debut, and the other two debuted earlier this year.

Adbert Alzolay, a converted starter, has claimed the Cubs’ closer role. And Justin Steele is in the midst of a Cy Young race. He had career highs in innings (eight) and strikeouts (12) in a scoreless performance against the Giants on Monday.

“Watching him go that deep in the game the other day, on a hot day like that,” manager David Ross said, complimenting Steele’s offseason work, “last year, that was a red-faced kid that was gassed in the fifth.”

It was a reminder of the developmental strides these young pitchers can continue to make in the majors.

Steele, Assad, Alzolay, Thompson, Wicks and Little began their professional careers with the organization. Palencia broke into the minors with the Athletics but was traded to the Cubs not long after.

In their last championship window, the Cubs faced criticism for the lack of major-league pitching they were developing in their farm system. That reputation persisted until the club overhauled its player-development operations, including its pitching infrastructure, before the 2020 season.

“I think we’ve got different areas that we need to improve,” Ross said. “Do we have some pitchers that have emerged? Absolutely. Do we have velocity in the minor leagues? Absolutely. I don’t think we had a lot of that; a lot of other teams do. But there’s other areas that we have to continue to fine-tune.”

The organization is still figuring out how to consistently develop control, for one. But the 6-8 Little, whom the Cubs picked in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft, found a balance between velocity and control in the minors before the team called him up Wednesday.

Ross worked as a special assistant to the baseball-operations department from 2017 to 2019, so he has seen an evolution firsthand.

“It would be tough to say we would have been in this position when I was in the front office, for sure,” he said.

After Assad and Thompson on Thursday, rookie Hayden Wesneski entered with two outs and runners on first and second.

Wesneski didn’t come up in the Cubs’ system, but the club did acquire him as a minor-leaguer last year in a trade involving a homegrown pitcher — another advantage of a productive pitching infrastructure. The Cubs traded sidearmer Scott Effross to the Yankees for a young right-hander whom they saw as a future major-league starter.

Wesneski struck out Jordan Lawlar to end the inning. He finished the game, surrendering one run in the ninth inning.

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