Thompson's Cubs rotation tenure off to ‘not terrible' start


When the Cubs sent Keegan Thompson down to Triple-A last month, Justin Steele was there to greet him.

“Welcome back to the show,” Steele said.

They laughed. Though Thompson later said he wasn’t thrilled to leave the big leagues to stretch out, they both knew these Iowa stints were temporary.

“In the long run, it's going to be the best thing for me,” Thompson said Saturday, after the Cubs’ 4-2 loss to the Royals.

On Saturday, Thompson officially joined Steele in the Cubs rotation, this time really back in the show. Thompson said he wasn’t pleased with his first game back, as the Cubs’ home losing streak extended to 12 games, tying the franchise record at Wrigley Field.

Thompson labored in the first inning, needing 31 pitches to get through the frame. But he recovered to put together a two-run, four-inning outing.

“I thought he did a nice job of pitching out of the jam in the first,” Ross said. “… He competes.”

Thompson’s and Steele’s rookie seasons have played out similarly, just slightly staggered. The pair of homegrown pitchers debuted this year, Steele in mid-April, Thompson in early May. After establishing themselves in the big--league bullpen, they both built up on a starter’s schedule in Triple-A Iowa.

“As I was getting stretched out, I was just trying to get back up here soon as possible,” Thompson said.

Now, they’re part of a post-deadline rotation that’s set to include three rookies when Adbert Alzolay (left hamstring strain) returns from the injured list. The next six weeks will give the organization an early look at its young starting pitching, before deciding next steps in a transitional offseason.

“Just looking for them to compete and continue to grow,” Ross said before Saturday’s game. “I don't think there's any real pressure on, like, ‘this is the one shot you get to be evaluated.’ These are moments to come up and prove yourself.

“They've proven that they can get outs in the big leagues, and they’ve proven they're really good at certain roles coming out of the ‘pen. Now, it's just about establishing that you can do it over the course of five, six, seven innings and going through a lineup multiple times, working in and out of jams.”

So, the organization isn’t reading too much into Thompson’s first start, which he evaluated as “not terrible.”

For Steele, Thompson’s call-up Saturday brought back memories of Tennessee, the first place the pair teamed up in a starting rotation. Steele joined Thompson at the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate late in the 2018 season.

“We hit it off from the beginning,” Steele said, “just two Southern boys hanging out.”

Steele also has a strong connection with Alzolay, who he calls “one of the very first close friends that I made in pro ball.” Their friendship dates back to 2014 rookie ball, but Tommy John surgery prolonged Steele’s path to the major leagues. Alzolay debuted two seasons before him, claiming a starting role this year, out of spring training.

As the Cubs chart their path forward in the wake of a massive trade-deadline selloff, there’s no guarantee that the three rookies will all be in the rotation next year. But now, they get the chance to show what they could do as a starting trio.

“It gives us a chance to learn at the big-league level, develop at the big-league level,” Steele said when asked about his and Thompson’s additions to the rotation. “I mean, that's only going to make us better in the long run. So, I'm really excited about it.”

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