Cubs’ Keegan Thompson mows down Pirates in second start of the season

Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson high-fived a line of fellow relievers in left field as he headed for the dugout and they strode out the bullpen. Usually he’d be going with them, this close to game time. But not Tuesday.

Thompson made his second start in a week, in the Cubs’ 7-0 win over the Pirates on Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

Cubs manager David Ross reiterated after Thompson’s last start that for now the club likes the 27-year-old in a multi-inning relief role. And Thompson has thrived in that role to start the season. He entered Tuesday with the lowest ERA (1.17 in seven relief appearances) of any major-league reliever with at least 20 innings this season.

“There’s real value in bringing that guy back every three or four days rather than five,” Ross said Tuesday. “The value he’s bringing, and a lot of the reasons why we’ve been in games and been able to fluctuate how guys are healthy and ease guys into the mix, has been [in a large] part because Keegan’s had a lot of success. … He’s definitely starter depth for us, but he’s also really valuable in the role he’s been filling for us.”

The Cubs again needed someone to open Tuesday’s bullpen day. Thompson was a natural choice.

He threw five shutout innings.

“This guy over here is something else,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said after the game, pointing to Thompson at his nearby locker. “This guy can pitch from the bullpen and can start some ballgames. Attacking the zone early in the count, making the right pitch, executing with two strikes, that was making him really good.”

In an efficient outing, Thompson allowed four hits and didn’t walk a batter. A couple inning-ending double plays helped speed along his start even more.

Thompson faced the minimum in the first inning, thanks to a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play. Then, in the fourth inning, Pirates designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach tried to tag on a fly ball to right field. Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki’s throw beat him by several steps.

Vogelbach and Contreras, who were minor-league teammates coming up through the Cubs’ farm system, exchanged words after the tag at the plate. Benches briefly cleared.

“It kind of surprised me, to be honest,” Contreras said. “Suzuki made a great throw, I put the tag on him, and I was just basically checking on him.”

The Pirates defense, on the other hand, gave the Cubs a boost with a series of miscues in the fourth inning, as the Cubs put together a five-run rally, their biggest of the game. They also scored on homers from Jonathan Villar, his first as a Cubs, and Christopher Morel, in his first major-league at-bat.

Thompson’s success in his past two starts has come in part from sticking with the mentality and routine that’s worked all season.For both, he even got warm in the bullpen as if he was getting the call in the middle of a game.

“I’ve started before, but the whole year I’ve been on a bullpen routine,” he said last week after limiting the Padres to two runs in four innings, “so I didn’t want to change something up today just for one outing.”

It ended up being two starts in a row. On Tuesday, Thompson’s five innings were a season high for him. He handed the ball over with a six-run lead.

Cubs lefty Daniel Norris replaced him to start the sixth inning, but Norris walked off the field with an athletic trainer after four pitches. The team later announced he’d left the game with right achilles soreness .

Left-hander Brandon Hughes took the mound next, making his major-league debut. Hughes struck out five in 1 2/3 innings. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. finished off the shutout of the Pirates with two scoreless innings.

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