By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Baseball has had its share of September marvels who pushed their way into a playoff picture and beyond. In 1978, the Dodgers brought up right-hander Bob Welch late in the summer, and he helped them win the pennant before his classic matchup with the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson became legendary. In 1980, Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Bob Walk was promoted during the season and helped pitch the organization to its first World Series title in decades.
On Thursday, the Cubs will turn to a little-known name themselves as the NL Central race hangs in the balance. They’ve promoted 22-year-old right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng from Triple-A Iowa and will start him against the New York Mets in the series finale at Wrigley Field. In a corresponding shift, the Cubs are sending left-hander Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen as right-hander Jake Arrieta continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Tseng’s spot in the rotation could last one game or more, and giving the Mets a different look was part of the equation in the Cubs’ thinking.
Tseng was 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 145 1/3 innings in 24 starts across Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa this season, and he was named the Cubs’ minor league pitchers of the year Wednesday. His performance included a 6-1 mark with a 1.80 ERA in nine starts at Triple-A.
Though it may feel like one, this isn’t a last-minute decision by the Cubs. After Tseng’s season ended the first week of September, the Cubs sent him to Arizona to pitch in a simulated game for five innings and stay sharp.
Late Thursday afternoon, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and others swung by manager Joe Maddon’s office to offer Tseng as a temporary stopgap for the rotation. Maddon saw the logic in the move as it returns Montgomery (3.64 ERA) to the bullpen.
“We needed more help in the bullpen”,” Maddon said. “So Montgomery is so versatile and amenable. We talked about it, and he is available in the pen. Jen-Ho was in town to accept an award (Friday for being the team’s minor league pitcher of the year). I said to him, ‘I know you are in town to accept an award, but how about starting tomorrow’s game instead?’ He didn’t even blanch. I have heard nothing but good things about this kid. I have watched him on video. We think right now, in order to get us all set up pitching-wise, this is the right thing to do.”
If Tseng pitches well, he may get a second start. The plan buys Arrieta time between now and a week from today to get back from his hamstring strain. Arrieta will likely throw two side sessions or a simulated game before coming back.
“It could be one and done,” Maddon said of the Tseng experiment. “We will see how it all plays out. He is a really good command pitcher. He throws and probably hits high 80s to low 90s. He is kind of like (Kyle) Hendricks with a really good changeup. He has a nice breaking ball also. He knows what he is doing out there. Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and learn things too.”
The Cubs will start John Lackey on Friday as they open a three-game series against the Cardinals, and he’ll be followed by Kyle Hendricks on Saturday and Jose Quintana on Sunday.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.