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Underwood hones in to rekindle prospect buzz

Pitcher credits conversation with Epstein for sharpening focus
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MESA, Ariz. -- This spring, Duane Underwood Jr. is feeling as good as he did when he was pitching for Pope High School in Marietta, Ga. All it took was hard work, a little adjustment mentally and a well-timed phone call.

The right-hander, ranked No. 30 on MLB Pipeline's list of top 30 Cubs prospects, has been slowed by injuries and inconsistency since he was selected in the second round of the 2012 Draft. In 2014, he posted a 6-4 record and 2.50 ERA in 22 games for Class A Kane County, but an elbow strain in 2015 and a forearm strain in '16 limited him.

MESA, Ariz. -- This spring, Duane Underwood Jr. is feeling as good as he did when he was pitching for Pope High School in Marietta, Ga. All it took was hard work, a little adjustment mentally and a well-timed phone call.

The right-hander, ranked No. 30 on MLB Pipeline's list of top 30 Cubs prospects, has been slowed by injuries and inconsistency since he was selected in the second round of the 2012 Draft. In 2014, he posted a 6-4 record and 2.50 ERA in 22 games for Class A Kane County, but an elbow strain in 2015 and a forearm strain in '16 limited him.

And now?

"I've been putting a lot of work in, getting my body right, getting my mind right," Underwood said. "Most of it was my mentality and how I approached the game and how I approached going on the mound, and a lot of that has changed and I've done a lot of growing up. The game's fun again."

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon can see it. He first got a long look at Underwood during an intrasquad game two years ago when Jake Arrieta was getting some work in on a back field.

"His body is better, he's leaner," Maddon said of the 23-year-old. "When he came into camp this year, he had a different look about him. This is a guy with a high ceiling, and he hasn't realized it. There's a lot of conversation from the front office, coaches, etc. I think this winter he went home and did a little soul searching. He's much more assertive, he's attacking the zone."

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Part of that soul searching may have been sparked by a phone conversation at midseason between Underwood and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.

"It was an interesting conversation to move me in the right direction kind of thing, just adjust my attitude, my outlook, stuff like that," Underwood said. "It put me in the right place mentally.

"It kind of helped me turn my season around, to be completely honest. It was a good conversation. I needed it."

Video: CWS@CHC: Epstein on bouncing back from NLCS loss

Underwood has had to deal with expectations that come from being a top Draft pick.

"With the injuries and stuff like that, it's almost been a little humbling and it's been nice," Underwood said. "I got to work this offseason and have been grinding my butt off."

He's added meditation to his routine, and tries to do so three or four times a week.

"I would say I didn't understand it at first, but it really helps," Underwood said. "It's like putting stuff in order in my mind to where I can be a little more organized with my day. It helped me develop a routine. It's been working magic."

What's important is how it helps Underwood on the mound. He's not looking at the stadium radar guns but watching hitters' reaction to his pitches.

"Getting outs is the sole goal here," he said.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Duane Underwood Jr.