How success as a reliever made Cubs’ Keegan Thompson a better starter

When Cubs right-hander Keegan Thompson looks back on his development over the past year, he’s most proud of the way he moved past his struggles at the end of last season.

“Being able to go through success and then failure, and come out the other side I think is a big thing for me,” he said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “Because you’re not going to have success every single time [you go out].”

Now, after a dominant start to the season, Thompson is back in the rotation, at least for the time being. On Thursday he allowed three runs in 5 1/3 innings in a 7-5 win against the Cardinals to open a five-game series at Wrigley Field.

Cubs manager David Ross has talked plenty this season about how valuable Thompson is coming out of the bullpen for multiple innings every third day, rather than starting every fifth day. But the Cubs don’t have that luxury anymore. Their rotation is missing too many pieces.

Injuries to veteran lefties Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) and Drew Smyly (right oblique strain) in the past week put the team in a bind. Right-hander Alec Mills is nearing a return from the 60-day IL, but he’s scheduled to make at least one more rehab start, on Tuesday.

So, is Thompson’s addition to the rotation temporary, as the Cubs sort through injuries, or an opportunity to claim a spot more permanently?

“Could be all the above,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said, adding that workload concerns could come into play later in the season. “I always love guys that get opportunities and seize them. I think if we’re building what we want to build in this organization, you should reward guys for pitching well and doing well.

“Now, with that being said, obviously as a team, you take into consideration what is the best option for everybody, and you don’t want to sacrifice one person for another, just because it’s a balance of all that.”

The Cubs tried to build up Thompson to start late last year. But after a series of short starts, they eventually shut him down for the last week of the season, citing shoulder inflammation.

This is different. Thompson is already built up just shy of starters innings and pitching as well as anyone on staff. Before Thursday, Thompson had already thrown a pair of five-inning starts. Entering play, Thompson’s 1.17 ERA as a reliever was the best among major league relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings.

“Some of the stuff that I’ve heard him say is just about being an out-getter,” Ross said when asked how the reliever mindset has carried over to Thompson’s starts. “And simplifying it in that way, rather than setting some kind of tone or going out and trying to go seven innings and trying to pace yourself.”

Both Ross and Hottovy mentioned the impact of Thompson finding a routine that works for him.

Thompson prepared for spot starts just like he was coming out of the bullpen – no long toss on the field, warming up in the bullpen. He’d started plenty before in the minors, but he didn’t see a reason to change what had been working for a single outing.

Now, it’s turned into more than that.

“I can’t explain how valuable it is for a young guy to learn early that you don’t need to make extra throws just to get ready,” Hottovy said. “And would he have learned that if he was not in the bullpen before? You never know. But him being in the bullpen and learning from some of the veteran guys about how they control their throwing programs and what it takes, and the work you put in between outings that make it all pay off. So I think it’s been fun to watch.”

Thursday wasn’t Thompson’s best start of the year. He’d set a high bar in his last two starts, throwing five scoreless innings against the Diamondbacks and holding the White Sox to one run. But he gave the Cubs a chance to win against the No. 2 team in the division.

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