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Ross adds umps to BP; Darvish tweaks prep

@MLBastian
February 16, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- Live batting practice is a part of Spring Training for each team. Following days of throwing sessions off bullpen mounds, pitchers advance to practice fields and begin testing their arsenal against hitters, who are either swinging or tracking pitches. None of that is new, but what the

MESA, Ariz. -- Live batting practice is a part of Spring Training for each team. Following days of throwing sessions off bullpen mounds, pitchers advance to practice fields and begin testing their arsenal against hitters, who are either swinging or tracking pitches.

None of that is new, but what the Cubs did on Sunday morning added a new twist on a spring classic. As part of his first Spring Training at the helm, manager David Ross had umpires in uniform and behind the plate for the Chicago pitchers’ live BP sessions. It was a way to simulate a game experience and give the players better feedback.

"I think it's amazing," said Cubs reliever Duane Underwood Jr., who threw in one of Sunday's live BP workouts. "Outside of having the position players out there and actual game time, this is as real as it's going to get."

Ross said the concept was brought to him by first-base coach Craig Driver, who also doubles as the Cubs' new catching instructor. Driver suggested having umpires for bullpen sessions to provide better feedback for Chicago's catchers. Ross preferred to keep things more traditional in those early-spring throwing sessions.

Ross said he was not sure how a veteran pitcher working on some tweaks would feel about an umpire behind the plate. The manager also said he considered the feelings of a younger pitcher who might be battling nerves with the manager, coaches and front office staff watching. But, for live BP, Ross loved the idea and saw it play out on Sunday.

"It felt a little more realistic out there today, to me," Ross said, "even though you've got the computers on the field and some feedback we're getting digitally. But I like the way it looks. I think the hitter gets some feedback, trying to learn the strike zone if they just want to track. Catchers are definitely getting feedback, and pitchers are getting feedback. It was pretty impressive live BPs for the first day."

Underwood agreed, noting that the addition of an umpire could also help them build early rapport with the catchers. Beyond that, the Cubs' bullpen candidate said it just helped narrow the focus, instead of just going through the motions in a workout every pitcher has done over the years.

"It just kind of brings everybody that's on the field more in sequence," Underwood said. "There's a lot more positives than negatives. I really enjoyed it."

Darvish alters winter schedule
When the Cubs' season concluded last fall, Yu Darvish did not want to lose the feeling he found on the hill in the season's second half. So, the right-hander picked up a ball and started his throwing program in November, earlier than in previous winters.

"I was just so scared to lose that feeling," Darvish said.

After the 2019 All-Star break, Darvish posted a 2.76 ERA with 118 strikeouts against seven walks in 81 2/3 innings (13 starts). His 2.2-percent walk rate and 16.9 strikeout-to-walk ration led all qualified MLB starters in that time period.

Does Darvish think he can harness that same feeling and production for a full season in 2020?

"I'm not sure the numbers -- like the walk rate," Darvish said. "But I still feel really confident I can throw enough strikes. I hope so."

Worth noting
• Second baseman Jason Kipnis completed his physical with the Cubs, making his Minor League contract (with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training) official. Kipnis will wear No. 27 for Chicago.

• Right-hander Brandon Morrow is scheduled to throw off a mound Monday after dealing with a stomach bug for much of the past week.

• Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is slated to meet with reporters on Monday prior to the team's first full-squad workout of the spring.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.