The mechanical change that has transformed Justin Wilson into a vital part of Cubs bullpen


WASHINGTON — It's #ComebackSZN for Justin Wilson.

After a rough introduction to the Cubs late last season (19 walks, 5.09 ERA in 17.2 innings), Wilson faced just two batters in the NLDS and was then left off the NLCS roster.

Now he could be closing games for the Cubs this October.

Joe Maddon has been calling the 31-year-old southpaw a potential "linchpin" of the Cubs bullpen ever since spring training and even though it took a while to show up, that value has been on full display lately.

Wilson hasn't walked a batter or given up a run in over a month and leads baseball in strand rate, allowing only 2 of 31 inherited runners score.

He finally feels like he's gotten past his control issues thanks to a mechanical fix.

"Delivery change for the most part," Wilson said. "When I got over here and struggled, I got into the part where I was like over-closed and couldn't really see it on film. And then finally kinda saw it with a different view, saw I was over-closed directionally and it's gotten better.

"But it's mainly more of just being aggressive in the strike zone."

The mental aspect is definitely a factor, as Wilson admitted he wasn't attacking hitters enough last season or when he walked 30 batters in 42.2 innings to begin this year. Maddon sees Wilson looking more confident than ever, stepping off the mound during tight moments to try to slow his breathing and refocus his mind in tense moments.

But that mechanical fix in his delivery about two months ago has stopped him from fighting himself physically out on the mound, allowing him to feel freer and get back to the guy that was one of the game's elite relievers before being traded to the Cubs last July.

"I had to do something," Wilson said. "Just looking at film, couldn't really find what was different. So it was mainly just to make a change to try to trick myself, I guess.

"But then I found out I was over-closed. Changed the camera angle and looked at past film and paused it in different places. It wasn't a lot, but enough to throw me off."

In other words: His body was fighting itself as he was delivering the ball.

With the regular season winding down and October looming, Wilson already had a ton of value as the only reliable left-handed option out of the Cubs bullpen at the moment. 

But with Brandon Morrow's status in doubt, the Cubs need to mix-and-match now with the closer's role and may have to in the postseason, as well.

Wilson has clearly emerged as one of Maddon's most trusted relief options lately and proved it once again Thursday night in a very unconventional situation.

After Carl Edwards Jr. gave up a double to put runners at second and third with only one out in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth, Maddon called on Wilson to face Nationals right-handed slugger Mark Reynolds. A curious call, for sure, that had both fans on Twitter and media members in the press box stumped.

But Wilson got Reynolds to strike out after a tough battle and then induced a flyout from Wilmer Difo to escape the jam and ultimately help his team to a 6-4 victory.

"That was pretty strong," Maddon said. "... I mean, that's the game. That moment's the game. [Wilson] got ready fast, he came out and he threw strikes. Like, really quality strikes — right exactly where he wanted to."

Between Wilson, Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek, the Cubs have plenty of experience to help close out games in September and October if Morrow can't return. 

Then there's Brandon Kintzler (who has closing experience, but needs to get back on track), Edwards (the Cubs' most dynamic reliever who has struggled lately) and Jesse Chavez (the under-the-radar trade acquisition that has been phenomenal and picked up his third save Thursday night).

"We got a great group of arms down there," Wilson said. "Hopefully B-Mo gets back because clearly he would be helpful. But if he doesn't, everything's fine and dandy down there. We got a 'pen full of closers, so we'll be alright."

What a turnaround that would be for Wilson with Cubs fans — from pariah to a top bullpen option in October.

"He wore [that first impression] for a while, but he never cried or complained," Maddon said. "His concept was — 'I need to pitch better.' I talked about this a lot in spring training — that he could be the linchpin to this whole season in the bullpen and right now, he's demonstrating that.

"What he's doing right now as a strike-thrower with that little extra thing he's got at the end — that gets out righties and lefties. It's not just about getting out lefties. He gets out righties with that, too."

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