Cubs’ Justin Wilson — remember him? — looks to put 2017 ‘aberration’ behind him
MESA, Ariz. — When asked the other day about his options in the ninth inning if closer Brandon Morrow needs a day off, Cubs manager Joe Maddon rattled off five names, including Justin Wilson.
‘‘I’m going to tell you right now: He’s going to have a great year,’’ Maddon said.
Wilson? The guy who walked the first batter he faced as a Cub, gave up a run-scoring double two batters later, added a wild pitch and by the end of the season had 19 walks, a 5.09 ERA in 17 2/3 innings as a Cub and no apparent confidence?
The hard-throwing left-hander, who was considered a key acquisition when the Cubs got him from the Tigers in a deal at the deadline last season, pitched perhaps three innings of consequence down the stretch and didn’t make the National League Championship Series roster.
‘‘It didn’t really go how I expected it or how I think anyone else expected it,’’ said Wilson, who had a 2.68 ERA, 13 saves and a WHIP below 1.00 with the Tigers before the trade. ‘‘It didn’t start out well. I tried to make a lot of different changes to just get some good feel back, but it was an uphill battle.
‘‘You try to reset and try different things, and I really just had to go out there and compete with what I had. I felt like I did well with that, but it wasn’t always my best. Luckily these guys were really good and picked me up.’’
By the time the Cubs signed Morrow and Steve Cishek this winter to lengthen the bullpen, Wilson had become an afterthought in most analyses of their relief corps. By the start of camp, it’s doubtful many in Chicago were thinking much about him at all.
‘‘Believe me, they’re going to be thinking about him,’’ pitching coach Jim Hickey said. ‘‘I think pretty quickly, too, because I’d be very surprised if he didn’t just replicate the success he’s had in the past.’’
That’s the thing about Wilson: He’s an uncommon power lefty, flashing upper-90s velocity, who had a 3.20 career ERA before being dealt to the Cubs. And he’s probably the most under-the-radar pitcher on the staff this spring relative to his track record.
‘‘I just think you come over and it’s a very big deal and you’re considered a pretty big piece of the puzzle and you go out there and struggle a little bit and then you want to do nothing more than to do better, so you put a little pressure on yourself,’’ Hickey said. ‘‘And then it doesn’t go well again, and those kind of things have a tendency to snowball.
‘‘With his ability to hit the reset button in the offseason, I think he’s going to be fine. I consider that last half of last season more of an aberration than any kind of a trend or anything.’’
Wilson looks sharper so far this spring. He hasn’t walked a batter in four outings, and a solo home run Sunday is the only run he has allowed.
‘‘It’s nice to get a fresh start,’’ said Wilson, who has lowered the leg kick on his delivery to help him with command. ‘‘I’m glad to at least feel like I’m back in the right spot, and I just want to keep improving.’’
If his spring so far is a sign of Wilson’s return to form, what will be the effect on an already-deep bullpen?
‘‘Everybody in this clubhouse knows that when he’s on, he’s got that electric fastball,’’ right-hander Justin Grimm said. ‘‘Once he gets rolling, he could be dangerous.’’
He even might remind some people that the Cubs considered him a potential 2018 closer when they traded for him.
‘‘I wasn’t myself last year,’’ Wilson said. ‘‘So, yeah, I would think that would surprise some people. But I also think the Cubs brought me over for a reason, and they know I can pitch well.’’
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