Assad rises to yet another challenge with seven-inning gem

August 12th, 2023

TORONTO -- mostly flies under the radar for the Cubs. He is not one of the featured big-money arms in the rotation, nor has he been a part of the primary late-inning, high-leverage cast.

But Assad has been the glue holding both groups together.

“He never backs down from a challenge,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

That is high praise for a pitcher still proving himself on the Major League stage, but Assad has made good on that premise time and time again. The latest challenge was stepping into the rotation, and a poised Assad chewed his way through the Blue Jays’ lineup, inducing contact and guiding the Cubs to a 6-2 win on Friday night at Rogers Centre.

The victory gave the North Siders 15 wins in their past 20 games, helping the club gain rapid ground in both the National League Central and Wild Card races. At the moment, Chicago holds the third NL Wild Card spot.

Assad pieced together a career-high seven innings -- he had not gone deeper than five frames since May -- and scattered four hits. An early outburst by the Cubs’ offense allowed the right-hander to pound the zone with authority as the Blue Jays’ lineup swung early and often. That led to weak contact, and it played into Assad’s hand.

“With a guy like that, you kind of have to pick a side of the plate with his cutter, sinker and slider,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “I think tonight we had some quick outs and didn’t hit the pitches we should have.”

Toronto is not alone. Assad has been leaving plenty of hitters perplexed lately.

Over his past 11 appearances, which include nine relief outings and two starts, the 26-year-old Assad has posted a 1.09 ERA, holding opponents to a .162 batting average (18-for-111) in that span, while striking out 27 and walking 13 in 33 innings. In the process, Assad’s season ERA has dropped to 3.12 from 5.53.

Right now, Assad is in the rotation, with struggling lefty in the bullpen and on the injured list. Over the past few weeks, Assad has also served as a bridge arm after short starts. He has picked up holds and finished multiple games. Whatever Ross has asked of him, Assad has tackled.

“I think just in the last six weeks you've seen him in every kind of situation there is, which you don't see a lot of pitchers in baseball doing these days,” said Cubs second baseman . “And this isn't just a guy filling innings. This is a guy who's throwing 94 [mph] with command of five pitches. It's a legit mix. Not at all surprised by what he did today, but it's still impressive, for sure.”

Assad’s performance on Friday also helped save a bullpen that was feeling the impact of 16 games in 16 days prior to Thursday’s off-day. Ross only needed to cover the last two frames, and the four-run cushion -- helped by first-inning homers from Hoerner and -- created a lower-stress environment.

“I think the world of Javy,” Cubs setup man said recently. “Having been a long reliever, it’s the most difficult job in the game. And he’s handled it like a machine. He’s able to do so many different things for us. He’s one of the most valuable players on our team, for sure.”

There has been another aspect of Assad’s performance that has stood out to Ross and others.

“Nothing seems to faze him,” Ross said.

“He's not afraid of anybody,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.

Assad started his rookie campaign in 2022 with four scoreless innings against the Cardinals. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado -- who finished first and third, respectively, in National League MVP balloting last year -- went hitless against him. Assad’s first career strikeout was against Albert Pujols.

On the heels of his impressive rookie showing (3.11 ERA in nine appearances), Assad made noise and headlines out of the bullpen for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. That experience seemed to fuel a quiet confidence he has displayed since reaching the big leagues.

“I’m not afraid of any batter, anybody,” Assad said via team translator Fredy Quevedo. “I think it’s something that I consider myself to have always had. For sure, that [Classic] experience definitely did help, but that’s definitely something that I feel like I’ve always carried with me.”

Assad showed that he was up for the challenge again in Toronto.

“I'm taking advantage of every opportunity, whether it is as a starter or a reliever,” Assad said. “I'm not sure what the future holds, but I’m definitely taking advantage of this opportunity.”