The Cubs are on top of the NL Central just over a month after coming into their first Wrigley homestand with a 2-7 record. A key part of that turnaround has been the pitching, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. But, if the Cubs have a glaring weakness, it's the reliever corps that is currently missing Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop, leaving manager Joe Maddon to fill in the high-leverage 8th and 9th innings with a rotating cast.
A few years ago, however, Carl Edwards, Jr. looked like he was on a path to being a late-inning reliever or even a closer. That has not come to fruition yet, and early this season Edwards was back in Triple-A after a disastrous start to the year brought on in part by a change in his delivery that the league ruled illegal after the season had started. Edwards went down to Triple-A Iowa on April 6 and was recalled a month later after holding Pacific Coast League batters to a .107 average in 8 1/3 innings with the Iowa Cubs.
And so far, the results on his return to the majors have been promising.
"I’m seeing his delivery being back to what it had been, more repeatable. He’s not worried about trying to be so deceptive," Maddon said Sunday. "He’s being a little bit more natural, just being Carl. Not trying to do all those little different histrionic things with his foot."
Since coming back to the Cubs, Edwards has made three appearances, pitching an inning each, and he has yet to give up a run. Even more encouraging might be that he has struck out four batters and walked none. And he hasn't given up a hit either.
Most recently, Edwards took the ball for the 8th inning Saturday against the Brewers while the game was still tied, 1-1. He was the first reliever out of the bullpen, set to face Travis Shaw, Ben Gamel, and Orlando Arcia. Edwards struck out Shaw and Gamel, but he said afterwards that that wasn't necessarily his plan.
"Honestly, I told the guys after that inning that when I came in was I was just trying to get them out of that as quick as possible," Edwards said. "So I went 3-1 on the first guy, and I just told myself, 'Hey, let this guy put it in play.'"
Edwards said his approach was to try to get a pop-up or a ground ball so that he could get an out more quickly and get his defense back in the dugout where they could warm up.
"I was just trying to find the quickest way to get us out of the inning," Edwards said. "That’s all I was looking for, to get my defense back in there because without those guys, we don’t win this ballgame."
He struck out the first two batters anyway, but he said that he that even contact on a foul ball was important because it would mean that his defense would have to move, even just a little. That's significant when it's in the 40s and raining and late in the game.
"I got the strikeout, you know, but at the same time, if he put it in play, it’s a plus too. It gets the guys moving, it gets your blood flowing, you get the adrenaline again," Edwards said.
The positive signs in his command have been great, especially when Edwards battles back from behind in the count like he did against Shaw Saturday. It's this kind of performance that might have Maddon willing to bet on him to take more high-leverage innings at the end of games. For now, he is happy with the progress Edwards is making.
"He’s not trying to be so fine either side, he’s just trying to throw a strike and let the natural movement take care of itself. Which I’m good with. His natural movement is that good. He’ll know when he’s able to dot it up, but when you’re trying to dot it up and you’re not really there, don’t try that," Maddon said. "I’d much prefer him just attack in strike mode with his stuff as opposed to trying to be this finely tuned guy that’s always nibbling at corners. That’s not who he is."
Edwards could make Maddon's decisions about the final innings of close games a lot easier if he can continue to pitch like he has since returning to the Cubs. There will understandably be some anxiety when he pitches -- both in Maddon and in the fans -- because of how he has struggled in the past. And for Edwards there might be some for a while too. Late last season he compared how he was feeling on the mound to writer's block, and this year he received racist messages on his Instagram account. Edwards has dealt with a lot in the last nine months.
Still, Edwards is maintaining the self-confidence necessary to get outs in the most difficult spots. His confidence and mental state are right where they need to be.
"Everything is good," Edwards said.