The solution to the Cubs snapping a season-high 10-game losing streak Friday was simple for manager David Ross, even after right-hander Keegan Thompson had suffered the shortest outing of his young career last weekend against the Yankees: He told Thompson to throw more fastballs.
Thompson heeded Ross’ advice, and the result was remarkably successful.
Thompson set career highs with six-plus innings and nine strikeouts, and the Cubs employed small-ball tactics in the eighth to seize a 1-0 victory and end the Braves’ 14-game winning streak.
”I think everybody can take a deep sigh of relief now and just have fun,” said Thompson, who was pulled after 37 pitches and two-thirds of an inning in an 18-4 loss Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
Chants of ”Go, Cubs, Go,” could be heard outside the home clubhouse and sounded as loud as the fans’ rendition after victories.
The players celebrated their last victory June 4 at Wrigley, and there was some doubt until backup first baseman P.J. Higgins fielded a grounder and sprinted to beat Orlando Arcia to the bag with the bases loaded to end the game.
”Look, we’ve had some ugly ones lately, but I haven’t questioned the effort or intensity,” said Ross, whose Cubs (24-40) blew a lead in seven of their 10 losses and had been outscored 90-30. ”There’s something about a starting pitcher setting the tone.”
Thompson, 27, matched 38-year-old veteran Charlie Morton through six-plus innings and allowed only two soft hits, thanks to his fastball command. Of Thompson’s 68 four-seam fastballs and cutters, the Braves (37-28) took 36 swings and missed 17, according to Baseball Savant.
”My core belief — and I’m probably not the norm in the new age — is you pitch with your fastball, especially the starter,” Ross said. ”And he did that. That was what you do. Nobody took good swings. He didn’t run to off-speed [pitches]. They were tardy on a lot of swings. It was an impressive start.”
Thompson admitted he had backed off his four-seam fastball in his last two outings, in which he was tagged for 12 earned runs in 3? innings. He thought he needed to pitch with more aggressiveness.
”I think I was trying to place balls the last time instead of just going after guys and staying in the zone and let them put it in play,” Thompson said.
A big part of the Cubs’ rebuilding process is finding pitchers capable of stopping losing streaks and harnessing perennial National League powers such as the Braves, who had outscored the opposition 101-41 during their winning streak.
Thompson pitched at a brisk tempo, and Ross had no reservations about allowing him to start the seventh, even though he was approaching his previous pitch-count high of 88 and exceeded it with a four-pitch walk to Matt Olson.
”His pace was phenomenal,” Ross said. ”I think that’s why it seemed easy. That’s an aggressive team, and he was attacking.”
A stiff wind knocked down at least three potential home runs, but the Cubs were resourceful at the right time in the eighth. Pinch hitter Jonathan Villar worked left-hander A.J. Minter for a walk, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Andrelton Simmons and stole third without a throw.
Rookie Christopher Morel then battled from an 0-2 count to hit a fly to center deep enough to score Villar with the lone run.
”That easily could have gone the other way,” Ross said. ”We could be really not in a good place if we lose that game.”