Duane Underwood Jr.

Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Young players providing key contributions for Cubs

Even amid a blowout loss Tuesday night, there were plenty of intriguing elements that could impact the Cubs down the stretch.

Duane Underwood's head-turning, record-setting performance out of the bullpen was one. Ian Happ seeing some playing time at second base was another. Kyle Schwarber catching the ninth inning was also intriguing, but the Cubs probably won't be utilizing that much in the future, especially with the signing of Jonathan Lucroy.

Happ has been pushing to play more second base since the end of last season and has worked hard all year to improve his infield defense. He finally earned a shot this week, with Wednesday serving as his first big-league start at second base since Sept. 19, 2017.

The 24-year-old responded with the huge hit of the Cubs' 10-1 win over Oakland — a grand slam in the fourth inning. He also singled and lined out twice, hitting the ball hard all over the field.

As the Cubs try to find the right mix at second base, Happ is aggressively trying to win the battle and climb atop the depth chart.

"[Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield] has been working with him a lot and he had done a lot of work with Triple-A," manager Joe Maddon said. "When he came back, he wanted to make sure that I knew that he's very capable of doing that. The way he's swinging the bat right now, creatively trying to get him in the lineup and see how it plays.

"This could be very beneficial to us moving down the road."

Maddon's right: as the Cubs work to get into a more consistent offensive groove, they need more production out of second base. They entered play Wednesday ranking 22nd in MLB with a .674 OPS from the position.

Meanwhile, Happ now has a 1.052 OPS on the season in 12 games since being recalled from the minor leagues.

The lineup the Cubs put out Wednesday looks to be their best offensive group, at least until Willson Contreras returns from injury:

1. Jason Heyward - CF
2. Nicholas Castellanos - RF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Javy Baez - SS
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Ian Happ - 2B
8. Victor Caratini - C

Plus, the Cubs could always look to get a lead early and switch to a more defensive-centric lineup later in games, inserting David Bote or Tony Kemp at second base and moving Happ to the outfield.

As the Cubs hit the road and try to rewrite the script away from Wrigley Field, Maddon confirmed Happ would remain in the team's second-base mix and hinted that could even come this weekend in Cincinnati.

"He's really not missing his pitch right now," Maddon said. "And he's had a pretty good history in that city, including going to university there. You'll see him play down there."

Happ — who attended the University of Cincinnati — hits better at Great American Ballpark than anywhere else on the planet, posting a .405 batting average and 1.457 OPS there lifetime (14 games). 

Then there's Underwood, who tied a franchise record by striking out six consecutive batters while making his 2019 debut:

The 25-year-old right-hander had been lights out in Triple-A since making the switch from a starter to a reliever and continued to flash his potential with Tuesday's dominant outing. 

The Cubs will continue to get looks at Underwood in the big-league bullpen, especially while both Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler are on the injured list.

"You need to try [to see what you have]," Maddon said. "You need to explore it a little bit. When you strike out six guys — regardless of the score, those A's weren't going up there not caring. They weren't going up there like, 'yeah, I'm just gonna strike out.' Those are good hitters.

"And not only that, if you watch the whole event — Duane's appearance, the line with which he threw strikes and command where he wanted the fastball and command of the changeup. I mean, you just don't do that. And 96 mph down to a changeup like that, in a close game, that could also play. So we're gonna find out."

Maddon also pointed to his experience witnessing young pitchers with good stuff (think Francisco Rodriguez in Anaheim) make a name for themselves with good performances down the stretch and acknowledged the potential for Underwood and Rowan Wick to do the same with the Cubs this season.

The changeup has been a key to Underwood's success, especially with his velocity spike that he can more easily maintain working as a reliever. The former second-round pick said he spent time with Kyle Hendricks in the weeks leading up to spring training this year, picking at the veteran's brain about his renowned changeup.

Underwood said he's feeling better with that changeup every time he's using it and gaining more and more confidence each day, which matches up with the advice Hendricks game him:

"The changeup's such a feel pitch and I told him, 'It's just something you have to throw a lot,'" Hendricks said. "You've gotta play catch with it all the time, you have to throw it a lot in your bullpens and sides and it'll start to come around and see what it looked like. 

"[Tuesday] night was unbelievable. The way it played off his fastball, too — just the same look, same plane. It's just awesome to see him go out there and have all his hard work pay off."

Duane Underwood's all-strikeouts season debut provides bright spot for Cubs

Duane Underwood's all-strikeouts season debut provides bright spot for Cubs

Tuesday’s game was ugly for the Cubs, but Duane Underwood Jr. was a very bright spot.

Underwood faced six batters and struck them all out after he came on for starter Jon Lester in the fifth inning. In doing so, he became the first Cub in the modern era (since 1900) to strike out every batter he faced and record six-plus strikeouts in the game.

“I didn’t know it was six until I got to the dugout and they said ‘Look at the board,’” Underwood said. “I thought that was pretty cool. I’m not trying to punch tickets. I’m just trying to get guys out. I’ve pitched to contact. I’ve struck guys out. Whatever gets the out is where I’m out.”

This was the 25-year-old’s first appearance of the season and second of his MLB career.

Underwood was 95-97 with his fastball and heavily used that pitch among his 29 pitches. He did get Mark Canha to strikeout swinging on a changeup for his final out.

“I know the score was not good,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They got a different attitude as offensive players, I think, a little bit, but to punch out six and they have a pretty good lineup. That was impressive.”

After Lester gave up 11 runs in four innings, the game was out of reach, but Underwood showed he could be a useful piece for the Cubs bullpen.

Lester joked Underwood probably should have started the game.

“I’ve always been impressed with his stuff,” Lester said. “He’s one of those kids you see and you see him work hard and you hope that he figures it out. I feel like he’s been given opportunities and he’s done well with them.”

Underwood was used as a starter in the minors until late May of this season. He had a 6.46 ERA in 10 starts in Triple-A Iowa, largely due to a lack of control (28 walks in 47 1/3 innings). Since moving to the bullpen in Triple-A, Underwood has had a 2.83 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 10 walks in 28 2/3 innings.

He credited Iowa pitching coach Rod Nichols with helping him transition to the bullpen. He said Nichols told him to stay aggressive when he comes out of the pen.

“I feel like I’ve been doing that since I’ve made the transition and it’s helped all my stuff play,” Underwood said.

 

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Cubs deal for another relief pitcher

Cubs deal for another relief pitcher

With a day to go before the MLB trade deadline, the Cubs have added another pitcher into the mix.

Tuesday afternoon, the Cubs acquired veteran right-handed pitcher David Phelps in exchange for pitching prospect Thomas Hatch.

Phelps, 32, is in his seventh MLB season and carries a 3.63 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 in 17 appearances with the Toronto Blue Jays. 

He was just activated in mid-June after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2018.

Over his career, Phelps has been a valuable swingman for the Blue Jays, Mariners, Marlins and Yankees. He's made 65 starts and 180 relief appearances in that time with a 3.88 ERA and nearly a strikeout an inning (538 whiffs in 571 frames). 

He was really good in 2016-17 before the elbow injury, going 11-11 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 176 strikeouts in 142.1 innings working mostly as a reliever in Miami and Seattle.

Phelps just gave up 3 earned runs in his last appearance in Toronto, but prior to that, he carried a 2.16 ERA and was allowing only a .190 batting average and .615 OPS. Over his career, he's been slightly better against right-handed hitters than lefties.

Hatch, meanwhile, was the Cubs' third-round pick in 2016, but he has yet to pitch above Double-A. He turns 25 in September and has struggled this season in his second stint in Tennessee (4.59 ERA, 1.41 WHIP). 

Phelps figures to slot into the Cubs bullpen later in the week, possibly as soon as Wednesday. Pedro Strop just hit the injured list and the Cubs called up Duane Underwood Jr. as another arm Tuesday, so Phelps probably takes Underwood's spot in the bullpen in St. Louis in the coming days.

There is certainly some risk and concern surrounding Phelps, as to be expected with a guy so recently removed from Tommy John surgery. His fastball and sinker velocity is more than 2 mph down from where it was when he was last healthy in 2017 and he's been giving up hard contact at a career worst rate. He's also seen a precipitous dip in groundball percentage and swings-and-misses and has generally been outperforming his peripheral numbers, indicating he's been a bit lucky to date.

But as he continues to regain his form and find his feel again post-surgery, he could emerge as a valuable option out of the Cubs bullpen.

Phelps also has a club option for 2020, so he could conceivably be a part of the Cubs bullpen next year, too.

If Phelps is able to regain his status as a high-leverage reliever, the Cubs relief corps down the stretch could look like this once Pedro Strop returns from injury:

Craig KImbrel
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Pedro Strop
David Phelps
Derek Holland

Plus, Rowan Wick looks to have ascended into the circle of trust and veteran Brad Brach has a long track record of success even though his first year with the Cubs has not gone according to plan. Then there's Tyler Chatwood and Carl Edwards Jr. who could figure into the mix plus Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, Duane Underwood Jr., Dillon Maples, Randy Rosario, James Norwood and Tim Collins, who have all spent some time in the big leagues so far this season.

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