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On Duane Underwood Jr.’s major-league debut and the Cubs’ recent slump

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The Cubs are on a losing streak. Underwood makes his big-league debut. What can we expect from the Cubs rookie?

Duane Underwood Jr. pitches for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2015
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

I started an article a few nights ago that didn’t get very far. However, with the Sunday announcement that Duane Underwood Jr. will start Monday, the idea for an article was renewed, on a rather contrarian bent. When a new starter toes the rubber for the first time, don’t expect all that much from him. This is a look at assessing anything from Underwood on Monday night.

Many of my memories of Underwood are from A ball. I watched him pitch in person a few times when he was with the Kane County Cougars in 2014. As little of a bearing as that has on his outing tonight, those will still be many of my memories of him. As opposed to many pitchers who are rather slow out of the dugout on the way to the mound, Underwood often reached the mound before his catcher. He manicured the mound while he waited. He fields his position well, and has had a rather useful pickoff move.

No, that doesn’t tell you what he’ll feature Monday night in Chavez Ravine. The reality is, Underwood makes as much sense as any for the start, all things considered. While the “cavalry” is on the way, it isn’t ready, yet.

There’s a very realistic chance Underwood ends up as a reliever sooner than later. As he has a live arm, tossing mid-90s for an inning a few times a week might be his niche. However, for Tuesday, he draws a bit of a tough match-up in a Dodgers lineup that is loaded with hitters that prefer facing right-handed pitching.

***

On my Twitter feed recently, someone noted that scouts rarely know what the score is. The assessment is that the scout is “looking for talent.” Whether the score is 7-1 or 4-3 rarely matters. The attempt is to locate players who can play. With that in mind, is that a reasonable way for the “normal fan” to watch a game? I think you likely pay too much attention to the score in most games.

“But, I’m not a scout. I’m a fan of the team.”

Yeah, I get that. Completely. You want your team to “win the series,” “win the division,” and reach whatever other goals you expect. You may fuss about bad hitting with runners on, bad outings by relievers, and bad beats, because that’s what fans do. While I’m not out to fire hose how you watch a game, your wishes (likely) have little bearing on anything concrete.

Ever since I wandered off the proverbial reservation, I’ve never enjoyed the game more. If the Chicago game is the game that makes the most sense for the night, that’s the game I go with. However, once short-season games begin, it rarely is for me.

While you were tracking a Pedro Strop meltdown, I was listening to Miguel Amaya hit his 10th homer of the season. If the Cubs are rounding up a key piece in a July trade, Amaya is the player teams will want. That’s how trades work. Teams moving a valuable piece will want a 19-year-old catcher who has an over .800 OPS in the Midwest League. Not Underwood or a fringe reliever.

As that’s probably too high of a beginning price for most talent, I’ll likely lean against. Even if it means someone else wins the division this season. Amaya is the type of piece a team should attempt to collect and retain.

***

Back to paying to close of attention to the score. We each have our own reason for coming to baseball, and the Cubs in particular. Jack Brickhouse treated five-year-old Tim as an adult, when that’s what he wanted. Which, many years later, has morphed into me wanting to know why something happened on the field. Or off it.

As such, I select the game that most answers my questions. Sometimes, that’s the parent club. Sunday, I wanted to listen to South Bend, and they beat up on the Reds affiliate, the Dayton Dragons.

My above-average interest in that game stemmed from an injury the night before. South Bend shortstop Jhonny Bethencourt had his wrist injured on Saturday night, leaving the Midwest League affiliate without a true shortstop, or any real infield backups. Sunday flew without a hitch.

Not only does Yu Darvish make a rehab start in northern Indiana Monday, there’s a realistic chance Nico Hoerner debuts there later today. (No, I’ve heard no reports as such.) The logical place for South Bend to poach a middle-infielder is Eugene. Their two valid shortstop options are Luis Vazquez and Christopher Morel. They both belong in Eugene more than South Bend.

Hoerner, however, is used to the PAC-12 college game. A jump to the Midwest League wouldn’t seem extreme at all. Seeing how the Cubs position players in a time of injury is fascinating to me. It goes a long way to answering the why, not merely the what.

Deciding who gets the emergency start also tends to be fascinating. Underwood has had an up-and-down season, but appears the available option for Monday. As such, he gets the ball, as he should.

***

When wondering about Underwood, the question keeps returning. Why do you follow the Cubs? Is it entirely for entertainment? Is baseball your overriding factor, with the Cubs your favorite flavor? Do you like to have unreasonably high standards for the baseball team you follow?

I won’t be able to track much of Underwood’s debut. His will be a name you hear over the next few years in the Cubs pitching circles, barring a trade. With his debut, the first four Theo Epstein draft picks for the Cubs (including three pitchers) will have played in the major leagues.

Underwood has reasonable velocity, and has three offspeed offerings that he can get over for strikes. His internal “star power” has waxed and waned a few times in the system.

What I recommend, if you’re staying up late on Monday? Don’t sweat the score. The Cubs should recover from this slump they’re in, but it might not be with Underwood’s start. Chill awhile. Perhaps you shouldn’t watch the Cubs game. Maybe dial it back, and listen to South Bend, who should finish at a reasonable hour.

Underwood could pitch five solid innings. Or get pounded out of the game after eight hitters. Because baseball. Watch the game for what it is. The Cubs winning or losing on a certain day in June isn’t worth the spike in your blood pressure most nights. If they’re getting throttled, go to sleep instead of tossing off an angry and pointed tweet.

The reason scouts don’t care about the score? They’re watching for talent. They’re appreciating the quality, and trying to assess which player should be their next move. You’re likely enjoying the game because you’re a Cubs fan. And wanting Underwood to be a valid piece for the future, which may or may not happen.

Enjoy the game. Or do something else for awhile. On occasion life gets too big for baseball. Or baseball gets too torturous. In those moments, ask yourself why you love the game. If the answer isn’t ready, turn the game off. Listen to some music. Read a book. Take a nap.

For most of us, baseball is a sidelight. I’ve seen quite a bit of angst the last few days. We all have bad stretches, which applies to athletes, as well. The Cubs are 10 games above .500 for the season in late June. That’s a really nice start to the season. A few players are injured. A few others are merely shelved.

With this, Duane Underwood Jr. gets a chance to start a game on Monday night. I truly wish him the best. Whatever happens, don’t bury him off of his first MLB appearance. He’s prepared, but that doesn’t mean he’ll succeed. Not in the most accepted definition.

The Cubs should be fine, either way. Eventually. Take baseball games as more of a learning experience, and less of a “my life happiness hinges on a coin flip.” Or, entirely disregard me. Underwood will show hints of who he might be on Monday. Try not to overplay it. If the other team is better on Monday, give them credit. Pennants are rarely won in June.

Underwood figures to show signs why he’s in the major leagues on Monday. And why he’s been in Triple-A. Enjoy the game. I wish I could.