Against the fourth batter Tyler Chatwood faced on Sunday, he tried something that he doesn’t think he’s ever done before.
Early in what would become a 9-1 Cubs victory over the Brewers, Chatwood was behind in the count against switch hitter Justin Smoak. With a 2-0 count, Chatwood threw a curveball.
“It just catches guys in between,” Chatwood said, “rather than just sitting in one gear, sitting hard.”
The Cubs’ research and development staff had given him the idea. But it wouldn’t have been effective with the control issues that defined the early part of Chatwood’s Cubs tenure. On Sunday, the curve brushed the bottom of the strike zone. Then, Chatwood threw two fastballs to strike out Smoak.
“I think Chatty has changed the narrative around here for all of us,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He is a guy we’re going to rely on. He’s going to get big innings. I have extreme confidence in him.”
Chatwood went from battling for the last spot in the Cubs’ rotation in Spring Training to, about four months later, being named the third starter. José Quintana cut his thumb in a dishwashing accident, and Jon Lester took a cautious approach to his quarantine throwing program.
Suddenly, the pitcher who led Major League Baseball in walks (95) two years ago was a prominent part of the Cubs’ rotation. The team kept insisting Chatwood wasn’t the same guy anymore. At least on Sunday, he certainly wasn’t.
Chatwood allowed just one run on three hits. In 93-degree heat, he was sharp through six innings. But the most telling stat for Chatwood was his two walks.
“His journey here as a Cub has had some ups and downs,” Ross said last week, “and I think he has a ton of confidence from all he’s been through and come out in a really good place. Mechanically, emotionally, mentally, all those things seem to be lining up for him.”
Chatwood agreed. He signed with the Cubs as a free agent in December 2017 with the role of starting pitcher in mind. But by August of 2018, his first season with the Cubs, he’d been relegated to the bullpen. The following year, he made just five spot starts.
“I think just all the work I put in, especially that offseason, I knew that I was back to what I could be,” Chatwood said. “So, I think now it’s just the best version of me.”
By Ross’ evaluation, Chatwood entered Spring Training as strong as any Cub. Then, when the Cactus League shut down in response to the pandemic, Chatwood remained in Arizona.
Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner was one of the hitters who stayed behind and eventually took live batting practice off Chatwood during the break.
“You want to say the first start is like any other start and try to treat it normal,” Hoerner said Sunday. “But I’m sure that felt extra good for him today. I’m not surprised.”
Not after facing him this spring.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras suspects that when Chatwood joined the team in 2018, he was trying to prove himself. But Contreras’ message to Chatwood is, “less is more.”
Contreras saw Chatwood follow that mantra on Sunday.
“Now, I’m just able to execute a game plan,” Chatwood said, “worry about executing pitches, rather than anything else.”