Could rookie Ben Brown be the wild card in the Chicago Cubs rotation as Kyle Hendricks’ struggles continue?

Could rookie Ben Brown be the wild card in the Chicago Cubs rotation as Kyle Hendricks’ struggles continue?

PHOENIX — Chicago Cubs right-hander Ben Brown kept searching for the feel on his curveball.

The rookie, in his second big-league start Monday, was not commanding the pitch like he wanted during the first three innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. And yet, by the end of the night, Brown had spun his first quality start by holding the D-backs to one hit and one run in six innings to help the Cubs to an extra-innings win to begin the three-game series at Chase Field.

Brown’s outing was a testament both to the 24-year-old’s nasty fastball and his ability to grind through when his repertoire initially isn’t at its best.

“My fastball is playing pretty well up here,” said Brown, who retired the last 13 batters he faced. “The hardest part was adjusting to different environment temperature with the curveball, and that took a little bit. I could throw the same way somewhere else and I’m landing every single one for a strike … but understanding I’m not that far away, I don’t have to make a huge adjustment.”

Brown’s success since his rough big-league debut — a 1.23 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over three games since then — has provided a big lift to the Cubs, especially with the type of stuff he has shown with his fastball-curveball combination.

The innings puzzle for the Cubs pitching staff will get reworked in the coming days, though, as Jameson Taillon returns from the injured list. Taillon said Tuesday he anticipates making his season debut Thursday at Wrigley Field against the Miami Marlins. Right-handers Javier Assad and Brown have been incredibly effective in the rotation while Taillon and left-hander Justin Steele (left hamstring strain) have been sidelined.

When Taillon is activated, it will require some rotation reshuffling.

“Where I sit is that we have plenty of the innings to cover and plenty of pitches to be thrown, that our job is to get outs and just to figure out a way to navigate through the game and get 27 outs,” manager Craig Counsell said Tuesday. “Whoever gets the outs, there’s enough outs to keep this going in the right way and keep us as good a team as we can have in Chicago and get through a whole season with a bunch of young pitchers on our roster.”

Brown’s dominant stuff makes him valuable even if he’s used out of the bullpen again once Taillon returns. Although he might go back to Triple-A Iowa at some point, for now it appears Brown will stick with the Cubs and take on important innings.

“I feel like (Assad is) super underappreciated leaguewide, does whatever is asked and does it at a really high level, and Ben Brown … was someone that stood out in spring training,” Taillon said. “Just acted like he belonged while also getting to know everyone and just made a really good impression off the field and obviously on it, so I’m not surprised.”

Another extra-inning game Tuesday, a wild 12-11 loss in 10 innings, pushed the Cubs bullpen to its limits after another inconsistent start by right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

The Cubs scored four runs in the top of the fourth for a 5-4 lead, but Hendricks handed those runs back in the bottom of the inning and was charged with three of the four runs the Diamondbacks scored as they reclaimed a three-run lead.

Ian Happ’s grand slam in the seventh, his first home run of the season, capped a six-run inning for the Cubs and provided an 11-8 lead. However, the D-backs responded by scoring a run in each of the next four innings for the walk-off win.

“Usage was less predictable, just felt like I made a couple of bad pitches and two of them were the homers, so just getting beat with slugging on my bad pitches,” Hendricks said. “Still searching, to be honest. I feel like I am making progress but it’s not showing.”

A demonstratively frustrated Hendricks didn’t have many answers after he surrendered seven runs in five-plus innings to the San Diego Padres on April 10. The result wasn’t any better Tuesday, when Hendricks allowed five hits — including two home runs — three walks and seven runs in 4 1/3 innings.

“Kyle has had a ton of success, he’s made adjustments over the course of his career very frequently, he’s figured things out and there’s a lot of faith that he will continue to so,” Counsell said pregame Tuesday.

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“It’s really hard when things aren’t going well to say, yeah, they’re fine, but that’s our job when you’ve got to perform the next day and you’ve got to go compete the next day or the next time you have to do it.”

The Cubs used all but two relievers Tuesday, staying away from Keegan Thompson (who pitched two innings Monday) and Héctor Neris, who was unavailable after pitching in three consecutive games. Taillon should be built up enough after his rehab assignment that he can go deeper into games if he’s pitching well.

Hendricks’ struggles have stressed the bullpen on his start days. He’s the first pitcher in the majors since 2019 to allow five-plus earned runs in his first four starts of the season, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and he’s the first Cubs pitcher to do that since earned runs became an official stat in 1913.

As the Cubs figure out how to allocate innings with Taillon back in the fold, Brown could be an important wild card on the pitching staff for Counsell.