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Javier Assad’s steady presence stabilizing Cubs rotation with Marcus Stroman out

TORONTO – Cubs right-hander Javier Assad applauded as he backed toward the dugout, acknowledging left fielder Ian Happ for his sliding catch in foul territory, a play that ended Assad’s gem of a start. 

Assad stopped just before the first base line, did his customary hop over it, and was greeted in the dugout by a tunnel of high fives. 

He had just held the Blue Jays to one run through seven innings, the most he’d thrown in any major-league game. It was his second spot start in a week, and he just kept getting better.

Assad’s re-emergence as a starting option gives the Cubs valuable flexibility as they push for a playoff spot in the last two months of the season. 

“Opportunities are going to come and go,” manager David Ross said before the game Friday. “It’s a major-league season, it’s on both sides of the ball. … Guys are going to need breaks and rest, and guys are going to go through little struggles. And a sign of a good team is somebody else picking them up. And Javy’s picked us up in a lot of different ways. And here’s just another day we’re asking him to carry a little bit more of the load for us.”

In the weeks leading up to Assad’s two turns in the rotation, his teammates were offering up praise for his contributions.

“Javy’s been fantastic for a while now,” outfielder Ian Happ said at the end of last month.

He was in a multi-faceted role, similar to the one Adbert Alzolay filled at the beginning of the season before he calimed the closer spot. Assad had to be prepared to pitch high leverage innings but also provide length out of the bullpen. 

“Not having a role is one of the hardest things in the bullpen,” reliever Julian Merryweather told the Sun-Times, “because it just basically means you have to be ready from the third inning through the ninth, depending on the game situation.”

Embracing that challenge, Assad posted a 0.47 ERA last month. He recorded four outings of three-plus innings in that span but also appeared in close games, earning the win in the Cubs’ 10-7 victory against the White Sox and recording a hold in the Cubs’ 5-1 win against the Cardinals. 

When Marcus Stroman landed on the 15-day injured list at the beginning of the month, it was clear the Cubs would need someone to fill in for at least one spot start. 

“He’s earned that,” Ross said of Assad. 

Merryweather said he and his bullpen mates saw it coming. 

“He’s been, for some reason, a dark horse kind of guy for a lot of guys in the bullpen,” Merryweather said. “We see how good he is, and like we’re like, just let him get on a run and it’s going to be really good. So, we’re all happy to see him do it. We love him.”

Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy highlighted Assad’s attacking approach. 

“Especially with the sinker, the cutter and the four seamer, a lot of the harder pitches,” Hottovy said. “That sets up everything else he does. It makes a slider play, makes the curveball play, the change up, all those things. And he’s not afraid of anybody.”

He was unfazed in the World Baseball Classic this spring when he pitched for Team Mexico against a stacked Team USA lineup. And Assad’s last start, against the Braves, stood out to Hottovy. The rookie held the Braves, arguably the best offense in baseball, to two runs in 3 ⅔ innings. 

“That was a tough lineup in Atlanta, a crazy environment with the rain, the weather, he didn’t have his best stuff, he didn’t have his best feel, but he found a way to compete,” Hottovy said. 

On Friday, Assad limited the Blue Jays to three baserunners through the first three innings of the game. Then, with two outs in the fourth, he gave up an RBI single on a soft line drive from Alenjandro Kirk. No matter.

He needed just two more pitches to get out of the inning, pounding the inside of the strike zone with a cutter on the hands to induce lefty hitter Daulton Varsho to pop out. Assad didn’t allow another hit.

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