On a night when rookie Adbert Alzolay was struggling to find his putaway pitch, he recorded a career first.
In the Cubs’ 9-3 win Thursday at Atlanta, Alzolay threw six innings for the first time. Allowing just two runs on four hits, he helped set up the Cubs to snap a five-game losing streak.
“It was huge for me that I was able to throw my first quality start in the big leagues today,” Alzolay said after the game. “As a team, I feel like we needed it overall. We haven't been as good as everyone was expecting as starting pitchers. But tonight, I felt it was good as a team, for the starters too, that I went out there and I gave the team six innings.”
Alzolay’s performance Thursday was just the Cubs’ seventh quality start of the year. Cubs starting pitchers entered the game averaging 4.4 innings per game, among the bottom five in MLB.
“In a moment where we needed a big performance,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “he stepped up and gave us that tonight.”
Alzolay’s pitch count was climbing toward 80 when he stepped back on the pitching rubber to start the sixth inning. That’s where he’d run into trouble in the past. He hadn’t reached 85 pitched yet this season.
In his last two starts, Alzolay had left the game with runners on base. In both cases, the base runners he put on scored after he walked off the mound.
This time, the Cubs had a comfortable lead heading into the sixth, and Alzolay’s command of his slider was only improving.
“I think he's just getting a little more consistent with what he wants to do to the hitters and the trust that he has in his stuff,” Ross said. “I really seen the same pitcher, I think there's just a little bit more leeway from my end and the ability to watch and continue to build confidence in him.”
After giving up a solo home run to Marcell Ozuna to start the sixth inning, Alzolay retired the next three batters he faced. Groundout. Lineout. Flyout.
Alzolay threw 94 pitches Thursday, another career high.
“At the beginning, I didn't feel good with my slider,” Alzolay said of his putaway pitch. “… But through the game, I was able to make some adjustments. It was huge for me because at the end, I found it. I was a little off with my release point at first. But being able to attack the hitters with both of my fastballs today I think was the key.”
As he searched for the right release point, Alzolay tried to throw his slider starting in the middle of the plate and breaking toward the edges. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away with that workaround the second or third time through the lineup.
Two strikeouts in the second inning, the one that started the frame and the one that ended it, are telling examples of how Alzolay worked through the early part of the game without a good feel for his slider.
Against Ozzie Albies, Alzolay got ahead in the count with two fastballs to the left-handed batter, both fouled off. Alzolay then threw a slider out of the zone. Ball one. He came back with another slider, this time catching more of the plate. Foul ball.
Alzolay finished off Albies with a two-seamer that looked like it was coming inside before moving away from the batter. By the time Albies realized the pitch would end up over the plate, his awkward swing was too late.
Against right-handed batter Guillermo Heredia, Alzolay fell behind in the count with two sliders low and outside. But Alzolay stuck with the pitch to get strike one on a whiff. Then, Alzolay threw his first fastball of the at-bat, freezing Heredia for a watched strike two.
Alzolay went back to the slider for strike three, baiting Heredia into chasing it off the plate.
“I think it is a big part of my development as a starting pitcher,” Alzolay said of finding his slider mid-game, “because in the big leagues, I feel that that's what you have to do, you’ve got to make adjustments pitch by pitch, inning by innings. Even knowing that it wasn't good at first, I never let it go.”
In all, Alzolay recorded six strikeouts and walked just one batter. For good measure, Alzoaly also recorded a career first in the batter’s box. His first MLB hit was a ground ball up the first base line and into right field.