PITTSBURGH — One pitch three starts ago still lingers in Matt Swarmer’s mind.
The sequence occurred in his June 11 outing at Yankee Stadium, where he notably became the first Chicago Cubs starter since 1901 to allow six home runs in a game. On that night, Swarmer threw a 90-mph fastball so inside to catcher Jose Trevino that the pitch nearly was in the batter’s box. But Trevino turned on the ball, hitting it off the left-field foul pole for a solo homer.
Given the placement, Swarmer figured the ball would have at least gone foul off Trevino’s bat if he didn’t take the pitch. Instead, it gave the Yankees their fourth homer of the game in an 8-0 win, part of a series sweep.
The Cubs believe Swarmer was tipping pitches against the Yankees. In his two starts since then, Swarmer thinks he has addressed the issue and the tipping problem has not been as pronounced.
“I don’t want to give hitters any advantage and make them feel like everything looks the same and you never know what’s coming,” Swarmer told the Tribune on Wednesday. “In the moment you’re not worried about where your hands are or mechanics, you’re just worried about executing pitches. But yeah, it can speed up on you quick. I’ve just got to be more aware early.”
Swarmer credited pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for bringing to his attention during games when he notices him potentially tipping, pointing to an indicator that the right-hander’s mechanics are off.
“I mean, that was a really good lineup — tipping/no tipping, that’s a potent (Yankees) offense,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “As long as he’s true to himself and continues to trust what he does really well and then find ways to sprinkle in the fastball and changeup and move the ball around … he’s got a unique slider that a lot of people don’t see.”
Swarmer was done in Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates by a 39-pitch third inning in which he gave up three runs. It prevented him from pitching deep into the game, limited to four innings. It forced manager David Ross to use right-hander Mark Leiter Jr., called up hours earlier to give the bullpen a fresh long reliever. Swarmer allowed five runs (four earned) in the outing while walking two and striking out five.
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After two short starts in the series from Swarmer and Caleb Kilian, who was optioned to Triple A on Tuesday, right-hander Keegan Thompson stepped up.
Thompson delivered a quality start for a second straight outing, holding the Pirates to one run over six innings in the Cubs’ 14-5 win Wednesday. The offense provided plenty of run support early, scoring seven runs in the second inning when they sent 10 batters to the plate and went 3-for-5 with runners in scoring position. The Cubs took advantage of loading the bases with nobody out in the inning, cashing in against Pirates starter Jerad Eickhoff.
Five Cubs drove in a run in the victory, paced by Ian Happ and Patrick Wisdom each hitting two-run homers. For Wisdom, it represented back-to-back days with a home run. Alfonso Rivas connected for his first-career grand slam, hitting it off Pirates infielder Diego Castillo in the ninth.
With the Cubs likely not getting any of their three injured starting pitchers back until around the All-Star break, Swarmer has an opportunity to get an extended big-league look. He wants to be more aggressive earlier in games and not worry about strikeouts. Ultimately, Swarmer wants to be a starter that the Cubs can count on to pitch deep into games.
“Sometimes I try to do too much and it just throws me off my game even more,” Swarmer said. “Like, I’ll just try too hard. I’ll get 0-2 or 1-2, and I’m trying to put the guy away or get weak contact. And outs are outs. But I’ve got to keep getting better, honestly, and keep learning.”
Swarmer continues to rely on his fastball-slider mix. He knows working on his changeup as a bona fide third pitch is going to be important to prevent hitters from sitting on his slider. It’s Swarmer’s best pitch, and Hottovy wants to see heavy usage.
“We’re still wanting guys to trust their stuff also trying to find ways to keep developing guys,” Hottovy said. “And he’s one of those guys that falls into that role of we know he’s got a pitch that plays really well. How can we complement that with other stuff and keep giving him an opportunity to succeed?”