It wasn’t spectacular by any stretch and at times looked like it was dangerously close to going completely off the rails, but Duane Underwood Jr.’s Cubs debut was about as good as anyone could have hoped for. Once listed among the top prospects in the organization, injuries and inconsistent performance had relegated the hard-throwing righty almost to afterthought status.
But a confluence of hard luck and weird timing had Underwood taking the mound Monday night in LA. His standout stuff was on display right from the jump as he flashed a 93 mph fastball and a looping curve before striking Joc Pederson out on a fading changeup. It took Underwood only four pitches to record his first MLB out. It’d take another 37 pitches to record the next two outs.
Nerves were clearly evident throughout that first frame as Underwood struggled to hit his spots and lost the grip on his change more than once, buzzing the tower on both Justin Turner and Matt Kemp. It didn’t help that home plate umpire Angel Hernandez appeared at times to be displaying his own lack of command of the zone.
The 14-pitch battle with Kemp was what Pat Hughes might well have called a turning point, even though Underwood ended up walking the resurgent hitter. Underwood got ahead 1-2 before missing badly with a change that tumbled right into Kemp’s barrel and was pulled just foul. Kemp would foul off another pitch before running the count full, then got a piece of six straight before walking on a changeup to load the bases.
Yasmani Grandal eventually lined out to end the inning and give the young starter a chance to chill out from the heat of his cup of coffee. From the looks of it, there were about 14 shots of espresso in there too. The next three innings went significantly better, as Underwood needed only 36 pitches — including 10 in the 4th — to finish his outing.
Despite that laborious first frame, he allowed only two hits and got three strikeouts to go with as many walks. He showed good life and touched mid-90’s on the fastball, which had nice late life. His curve was tight and had all the makings of a truly devastating weapon when it’s located properly. Underwood struggled with the change and may have been guiding it a little bit, but it tumbled nicely when he had it working.
All in all, it was excellent for a first start, particularly when all the Cubs really needed was a few innings that didn’t put them in a deep hole. Not that it really mattered with the way the Cubs bats fared against Underwood’s counterpart, Kenta Maeda.
The solid debut will probably end up as a footnote to another disappointing offensive performance, particularly when Underwood is likely to be optioned right back to Iowa. Even so, there was a lot of promise to take away for the pitcher and the organization alike. Underwood has excellent stuff and he could really have an impact down the road, he just needs to continue working on his consistency.
Some might think he should have figured that out by his seventh season in the organization, but that tenure belies his youth. Underwood won’t turn 24 until July 20 and has pitched more than 100 innings only twice in that time. Even with judicious usage, you’d expect a starting pitcher to amass far more than Underwood’s 524.2 minor league innings since the Cubs took him in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Now he’ll get the chance to add to that total while continuing to fine-tune his offerings, and he’ll do it with the confidence that his stuff plays in the big leagues. Unless circumstances once again conspire to necessitate another spot start, though, it’ll be at least September before we see Underwood again in a Cubs uniform.