MILWAUKEE — After an eye-popping, bullpen-saving effort a few weeks ago in which he retired 14 of 15 batters faced, Adrian Sampson got the privilege of being demoted back to the minors because he had options and the Cubs needed a fresh arm.
Then he got the ass.
“I think I handled it not the best,” Sampson said of the angry reaction when manager David Ross sent him out. “But I thought I told him what I wanted to tell him.
“You’ve got to be careful when things like that happen,” he added, “because if you say the wrong thing it deters people from wanting to keep you around. I tried to be precise with my words and let them know that I was not happy with their decision.”
Ross said it showed him something about Sampson and his competitive nature.
And Sampson has been showing something ever since — to anyone watching him pitch for a Cubs team that might yet be forced to find a place for the journeyman right-hander.
Those watching Wednesday in Milwaukee saw him go toe-to-toe with the National League’s reigning Cy Young winner, Corbin Burnes, in a game the Cubs eventually won 2-1 on a late RBI by P.J. Higgins — to win a fourth consecutive series.
“There’s an extra motivation. Everything you do is for the guys in the clubhouse,” said Sampson after pitching two outs deep into the sixth with the kind of command and efficiency that allowed him to retire the first Brewers, face the minimum through 4 2/3 and give up only the lone, two-out run in the fifth on Keston Hiura’s homer to left.
It’s not hurting the cause for the guy in the mirror along the way.
Sampson, 31, is having the kind of stretch for a beat-up pitching staff that has the potential to open a few more eyes, if not land him a big-league home for an extended stretch for the first time in a career that has spanned parts of five big-league seasons over an 11-year professional career with four organizations.
“Every time I’m out there, I want them to know I belong here,” Sampson said after that first start back from his brief demotion — an impressive start against the Cardinals that might have been a scoreless outing if not for a two-out dying quail that dropped behind third base for a two-run hit.
“That’s the biggest thing. Everybody in this room belongs in the big leagues,” he said. “Once you get the opportunity, you’ve just got to show them your best stuff every time. Don’t take anything for granted.”
That’s what this Cubs season is about as it heads into the back nine.
The Cubs have won five of six series, but all those good vibes will take on a bittersweet taste when the inevitable selloff begins toward the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
Young players such as Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele and Chris Morel rightfully become the focus of team president Jed Hoyer’s efforts at systematically assembling his “next great Cubs team.”
But guys like Sampson have a chance, too, his kind of savvy built through adversity and persevering through the ups and downs of bobbing between Triple-A and the majors the last seven years — and between various bullpens and rotations.
Not to mention with that uptick in velocity and productive tech support since he got to the Cubs and plugged into their pitch lab processes.
He already had the command and the self awareness of his game.
And the confidence has rarely been higher than these last few regular turns in the rotation since saying his piece that day in Ross’ office.
“It’s huge,” Sampson said of the confidence. “Bouncing from the bullpen back to starting, it’s a little bit of a change, but I’ve done it a few times so it’s nothing new for me. So then it’s just doing what I need to between outings and trusting the guys pressing the [PitchCom] buttons behind the plate.”
Consider that in 57 innings with the Cubs these past two seasons — which include eight starts — he has a 2.84 ERA.
In 153 big-league innings for Seattle and Texas from 2016 through 2019: 5.71.
“He’s done a really nice job,” Ross said.
Whether Sampson is still around for Hoyer’s “next great Cubs team,” he’s here now. With something to prove. And the runway to do it.
And the kind of attitude that might make it wise to stay out of his way.