Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been the lone bright spot in the first five games of the 2018 season.

While the offense has struggled (18 straight scoreless innings) and the starters have had an uneven performance one turn through the rotation, the bullpen has been the saving grace.

Justin Wilson is a huge factor in that.

He's tied for the team lead with three appearances and is second only to Eddie Butler (who had all 7 innings of relief in the one 17-inning game) with 3.2 innings.

In fact, Wilson has gotten more outs in the first five games than Opening Day starter Jon Lester.

Wilson's been light's out, allowing only a single and a pair of walks while striking out five batters. More importantly: He hasn't allowed a run.

The veteran left-hander pitched a perfect seventh inning against the Reds in Cincinnati Monday, blowing a 96 mph fastball by Joey Votto to end the frame.

It's a far cry for Wilson, who faced only two batters in the NLDS last fall and was left off the NLCS roster.

Wilson endured surprising and extreme struggles after being traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Cubs last summer. He walked an astonishing 19 batters in 17.2 innings while also giving up 18 hits and 10 earned runs.

The control issues were there from the outset, with a pair of walks in his Cubs debut Aug. 2 and he handed out 9 free passes in his first 11 innings. But things spiraled when the calendar flipped to September, with 5 walks and 5 runs allowed in his first three outings in the final month while recording only 5 outs.

An offseason away from the baseball diamond may have made all the difference.

"It was a struggle last year, so it was nice to get a little breather and kinda regroup and come back to spring with the same group," Wilson said. "I just kinda took a step back, a deep breath and relaxed. And that was it."

It's still too early to say for certain that he's back to being the pitcher that posted a 2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 and 13 saves in four months with the Tigers, but sometimes pushing the reset button is all that's needed.

Neither Wilson nor the Cubs had any answers to point to specifically on where the lack of control and effectiveness came from last year, but things can snowball pretty quickly in the middle of a tight pennant race when you're joining a new team in a new environment. 

"The thing is, I never lost confidence in myself," Wilson said. "Just had to get back on track. Staying in my routine, getting back and getting ready for the season."

If the 30-year-old southpaw can tap into that success he's had as a reliever for his entire big-league career up until the last two months of 2017, that's a gamechanger for the Cubs bullpen.

The Cubs currently feature three left-handed relievers (Wilson, Brian Duensing and Mike Montgomery), which means Wilson could either be trusted as a one-out guy against a dynamic left-handed hitter (like Votto or Bryce Harper) or he could carve through the heart of a team's order in the eighth inning or even be available to close on days Brandon Morrow is down. It'll just depend on what Joe Maddon and the Cubs need that game.

So while three games is hardly a statement, it's certainly a step in the right direction and any step in the right direction for Wilson is a huge boost for the Cubs bullpen.