ST. LOUIS – The Cubs methodically built their franchise around talented young hitters and targeted free agents who would bring attitude and experience to the clubhouse. But to become contenders and eventually World Series champions, the front office also needed to get creative with in-season moves and the farm system had to deliver jolts of energy.
Whether it was rebuilding the bullpen on the fly with scrap-heap relievers in 2015, or making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees last summer, or promoting Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. and trusting those rookies in pennant races, the Cubs could feel the shots of adrenaline.
Maybe that’s what Eddie Butler will provide at a time when the defending champs haven’t been playing with the same precise execution and laser focus.
Butler gave the Cubs exactly what they needed on Friday night at Busch Stadium, throwing six scoreless innings during a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals and earning at least another turn in the rotation.
“Of course,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward.
“Sounds good to me,” Butler said with a smile. “I’m going to go out there and keep attacking.”
Called up from Triple-A Iowa to replace the injured/ineffective Brett Anderson, Butler allowed only two infield singles to Aledmys Diaz, showing why the Colorado Rockies once made him a first-round pick and Baseball America saw him as a top-25 prospect.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know that he threw that hard,” Contreras said. “And then once I saw the scoreboard, 96, 95 (mph), OK, we’re going to use the fastball, because they looked kind of behind on it. He had a good idea (of what he wanted to do).”
Performing in front of a sellout crowd – at 47,601 it would be recorded as the third-largest regular-season mark in Busch Stadium III history – Butler felt so amped up that he allowed back-to-back walks with two outs in the first inning.
Pitching coach Chris Bosio visited the mound at that point, Butler got the groundball in his matchup against Yadier Molina and the Cubs settled in to watch only their 14th quality start through 35 games.
Between Butler’s raw talent, Bosio’s no-nonsense approach and a sophisticated game-planning system, the Cubs think they may have found an answer for their 2018 rotation, when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey might be gone. But an 18-17 team needs to see results from Butler now.
“He’s been doing that at Triple-A (1.17 ERA), so that’s the part that I like,” Maddon said. “It’s not like he was just throwing in a pedestrian manner down there and came up here and all of a sudden had a good night.
“He’s very interesting with a very good arm.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains, the way it’s been with Contreras, a revelation as a rookie catcher last season and a player constantly finding himself in big moments.
Contreras drove two Mike Leake pitches into the right- and center-field seats that traveled 809 feet combined, giving him his first career multi-homer game. Contreras picked off Dexter Fowler at first base with a throw from his left knee to end the seventh inning, screaming and pounding his chest as he walked off the field. A wild Contreras throw to Anthony Rizzo on what should have been the game-ending strike three allowed the Cardinals to score an unearned run and put Cubs fans on edge.
Whether or not it’s now or never for Butler, it’s hard to picture a better spot to launch his career, even when the Cubs are hovering around .500.
“I plan on holding the spot,” Butler said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, trying to get quality starts, give these guys a chance to win every day. They’re going to put up runs and they’re going to play some ball behind us.”