Several weeks ago, during a conversation about what the Cubs’ starting pitching might look like a year from now, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy started to address the natural list of in-house possibilities that could be in play by next spring: Kyle Hendricks, maybe Adbert Alzolay, maybe at least one of the Keegan Thompson-Justin Steele duo trying out down the stretch.
“Don’t forget Alec Mills,” Hottovy said.
Oh, yeah, that’s right: the unassuming, bespectacled swingman with the 2020 no-hitter in Milwaukee.
Everybody always forgets about that guy.
“We don’t forget about him,” Hottovy said.
For the rest of us who need an occasional reminder that the Cubs just might have two big-league caliber starters in-house for next year’s rotation before they get to the mixed-bag evaluations of those rookies, Mills pitched into the ninth inning Saturday against Chicago’s good baseball team, helping assure the Cubs don’t get swept by the White Sox in the series for the first time.
Mills gave up a hit and walk in the ninth and finished two outs shy of completing a four-hitter.
It would have been the Cubs’ first complete-game shutout since Mills’ no-hitter in Milwaukee last September.
“That was a clinic tonight for me,” said manager David Ross, who lauded the command, off-speed and breaking stuff and Mills’ ability to still use his fastball against a fastball-crushing playoff-caliber lineup.
“Weak contact’s still a thing; you don’t have to miss barrels all the time,” Ross said. “He’s just been as consistent a guy as I’ve had since I’ve been here — the things we’ve asked him to do, ups and downs. That’s a really good lineup that he just ran through, pretty efficiently.”
The 103-pitch outing certainly was one of the Cubs’ best of the season — one of the staff’s best since Mills’ no-hitter. But he still took a losing record and 4.76 season ERA into that start for a team that’s playing out the string with a roster full of guys auditioning for roles next year.
On the other hand, the right-hander acquired in an under-the-radar minor-league trade before the 2017 season — who opened the season in the Cubs’ bullpen — has done more than make a case that he deserves a place somewhere in next year’s rotation (if not that he should have been in this year's rotation all season).
Since debuting with the Cubs in 2018, Mills has made 31 starts, lowering his ERA in those starts Saturday to 3.92 with a 9-13 record and averaging 5 1/3 innings per start.
That’s about a full big-league season of starting.
And a pretty strong performance for a No. 5 starter on a good team.
The Cubs have a long way to go before the words “good team” start applying again as they tail-spin toward the end of a late-season tanking job by the front office.
Saturday’s 7-0 decision was just their sixth win in 25 games this month.
But as forgettable as this month has been and that next month promises to be, it might be worth remembering Mills when they reconvene in Arizona next February, regardless of what pitchers they might add from outside the organization between now and then.
In fact, Mills, who turns 30 in August, said the other 30-year-olds with big impacts Saturday — Patrick Wisdom with a second straight two-homer game and Rafael Ortega with a grand slam — are worth remembering as the Cubs try to put some semblance of a winner on the field over the next year.
“Age is just a number,” Mills said. “We’ve kind of been some late bloomers. But at least we’re blooming. At least we’re playing well in situations in the big leagues and trying to take every day … and keep producing.”
Said Wisdom of the Cubs’ unheralded, largely overlooked “late bloomers,” including 29-year-old Frank Schwindel, and those who might be surprised by their performances:
“I don’t want to sound rude, but if they’re surprised that’s on them. I know what I can do, and other people know what we can do. I think there’s a reason why we’re here and why we’re playing well like we are.
“If we can just keep going I think things will kind of turn around.”