Keegan Thompson exhaled as he strode across the field to the dugout, his breath a plume in the cold night air at Wrigley Field.
In what would become a 4-2 win for the Cubs, Thompson had just held the Rays scoreless through 3 2/3 innings. After reliever David Robertson threw a scoreless ninth inning, Thompson earned the win for doing the heavy lifting in the middle innings of a close game.
Multi-inning relievers are always valuable. But the unique circumstances of this season have heightened the importance of Thompson’s role.
Coming out of a shortened spring training, most starters weren’t fully built up to start the season. And injuries dealt a further blow to the Cubs’ starting rotation. Right-hander Adbert Alzolay began the season on the 60-day injured list with a right shoulder strain. Lefty Wade Miley (left elbow inflammation) and right-hander Alec Mills (low back strain) are still on the 10-day IL.
“I think I think being able to use a guy when you are in a tight game or have leverage that can go two or three innings is extremely valuable,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We have other guys out there too that we feel like they can do that. But Keegan’s just proven over and over now that he could handle that moment and that role.”
Thompson had a whirlwind 2021 season. He debuted in May, served primarily as a multi-inning reliever, went back down to Triple-A to stretch out to starter’s innings, battled fatigue coming off the canceled 2020 minor-league season, went on the IL for what the Cubs called right shoulder inflammation, and finished on a high note in St. Louis.
Through all that back-and forth, Thompson recorded a 2.43 ERA as a reliever last year.
“You’re just trying to help the team win in any way you can,” Thompson said this spring. “So no matter what that role is this year, I’m just trying to stay healthy.”
Entering play Monday, Thompson had pitched over two innings in each of his first two outings, finally turning the ball over to the back end of the bullpen in the eighth inning. And he hadn’t allowed a run.
“We still think he can start, there’s a lot of things we think he can do,” Hottovy said last week. “But this role right now as we get into the season has seemed to work out well for him like it did last year.”
On Monday, in his first outing since a two-game suspension for hitting Brewers outfielder Andrew McCutchen last weekend, Thompson maintained his pristine ERA through a third outing.
He replaced starter Kyle Hendricks with one out in the fifth inning. The Rays had just tied the game at two runs apiece. Runners stood on first and third, the tying run 90 feet from home plate.
The first pitch he threw was a cutter at the bottom of the strike zone to Randy Arozarena. And Arozarena pounded it into the ground for an inning-ending double play. Tie preserved.
The next inning, Thompson faced the minimum, with help from catcher Willson Contreras, who threw out Yandy Diaz trying to steal. Thompson’s highlight reel that frame included a strike-three curveball to Ji-Man Choi, that fooled him so thoroughly that he stumbled out of the batter’s box.
He made quick work of the Rays the next two innings, retiring the side in order in the eighth.
Thompson’s final line included one walk, one hit and a season-high five strikeouts.