Jeremy Jeffress’ third straight splitter to Tyler Naquin caught more of the plate than the first two. Enough for the Indians left-handed pinch hitter to put the ball in play.
But as the pitch dove into the bottom third of the strike zone, Naquin only got his bat on the top half of the ball.
“It’s a good pitch,” Jeffress said of the split-finger earlier this week. “It’s one of my best.”
The resulting groundout ended the frame, maintaining the tie into the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday. The Cubs went on to beat Cleveland 3-2 in extra innings.
A month ago, Cubs manager David Ross might not have felt so comfortable pulling starting pitcher Jon Lester out of a close game in the fifth inning, even with an off day the next day.
That’s what he did on Wednesday, and Cubs relievers combined for five shutout innings, including Jeffress’ scoreless ninth.
“It seems like a long time (since) I’ve had real worries down there,” Ross said after the game.
Just like Jeffress’ splitter helped revive the veteran reliever’s arsenal, Jeffress himself helped salvage the Cubs bullpen over the past month and a half. With the postseason fast approaching, the bullpen is no longer a weakness.
It became clear in the first week of the season that the Cubs had a closer problem. At Cincinnati, then-closer Craig Kimbrel took the mound with a three-run lead in the ninth inning. He walked four and hit a batter before Jeffress replaced him with the bases loaded and one out. Jeffress retired the next two in order for the Cubs to come away with a one-run win.
That was the beginning of an arduous process for Kimbrel, of diagnosing mechanical issues and working through them in the middle of a shortened season.
The Cubs didn’t have a flame-throwing replacement for Kimbrel, the kind of late-inning reliever that’s so coveted in today’s game. Plus, the Cubs bullpen as a whole had the worst ERA in baseball (9.64) in the first week of the season.
But the Cubs did have Jeffress.
According to Ross, Jeffress has mentored the Cubs’ young relievers all year. He showed them how to pace themselves before being called into a game: get loose when you might be needed but wait for the second phone call to get “all the way hot.”
“I'm definitely a hands-on type of guy,” Jeffress said, “because I pay attention to the game a lot. I pay attention to details.”
He’ll pass on pointers, like a pitch sequence that he thinks will work against a specific hitter
At the same time, Jeffress has amassed the best ERA on the Cubs pitching staff (1.77). And he is throwing his splitter more than ever.
It was an effective tool for Jeffress in his All-Star 2018 season, when he threw it 15.8 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. But the next year, he said it didn’t feel quite right, and that frequency dropped to 9 percent.
This season, after diving into video with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, Jeffress has made the splitter his most-used pitch (32.7 percent).
“I think the splitter pays more like a heavy sinker,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “That’s why we call that pitch a lot because that’s a groundball pitch or a strikeout pitch.”
As the Cubs near the playoffs, and Ross narrows the list of pitchers he trusts in high-leverage situations, Jeffress has gotten more save opportunities.
He leads the Cubs with seven saves – Rowan Wick is next on the list, and he has four. All but two of Jeffress’ saves have come in the past four weeks.
“I would say this is probably getting back to who I really am,” Jeffress said. “I feel like I am a dominant pitcher, just because I know how to slow the game down, do what I do best, and attack hitters.”
Jeffress may not be the Cubs closer by name, while Ross continues to avoid labels. But Jeffress solved the Cubs’ closer problem.