Why Cubs’ David Ross dubbed reliever Julian Merryweather the ‘unsung MVP’ of the team

PHOENIX – When Julian Merryweather jogged out of Chase Field’s visitors bullpen on Saturday, he was facing the Diamondbacks for the fourth time in nine days. But over the course of multiple innings, Arizona hitters were just as lost against the hard-throwing Cubs reliever as they were in the first three contests. 

“He is probably the unsung MVP of our team,” manager David Ross said this weekend. “When we locked things in, his success, him holding down that seventh inning really transitioned us to set a lot of guys up in roles that have really helped.” 

Merryweather seized that seventh-inning role in June, with splitter-tossing Mark Leiter Jr. both serving as a setup man and solution to the Cubs’ lefty matchup equation, and Adbert Alzolay emerging as the closer. Now with Alzolay and veteran Michael Fulmer, another right-hander who Ross trusts in high leverage, on the IL, Merryweather’s already major-league career-high workload is only ramping up.

That’s how Merryweather ended up throwing two innings in the Cubs’ 13-inning loss in Arizona on Saturday and pitching in three straight games against the Diamondbacks last week, earning the save in the third.

“We’ve been through the battles this year,” Merryweather said of the bullpen. “We’re ready for this final stretch and ready for any situation that comes up.”

Until the Cubs offense can reverse the slump it’s been in for about a week and a half, expect the back end of the bullpen to continue to carry a heavy load. 

The last time Merryweather pitched this many innings in a year was in 2017 as a minor-league starter, which is a much more predictable routine. He underwent Tommy John surgery the next season and has navigated a myriad of injuries in the years since. 

This season, he’s already thrown 67 innings, the most relief innings of any Cubs pitcher and more than double his previous major-league career high. His fastball is still averaging 98-99 mph, and he entered the off day Monday with 91 strikeouts, trailing only four other major-league relievers: Baltimores’ Félix Bautista, Seattle’s Matt Brash, Texas’ Aroldis Chapman and Miami’s Tanner Scott. 

“That’s been obviously a great change this year, being able to feel better physically,” Merryweather said. “Some adjustments I’ve made have helped that. Keeping it day to day is still the hard part. Every day, my body, honestly, feels a little different. So not worrying too much about the past, but just being aware of it – what areas am I usually having to keep tabs on?” 

Those adjustments include the recovery work he’s doing with the athletic training staff, his weight room routine, and some mechanical tweaks he made working with the Cubs coaching staff this offseason after the team claimed him in January. 

He didn’t know exactly what to expect going into spring training. He was joining a bullpen that, by design, had seen a lot of turnover the last couple rebuilding years.

“Everyone looked around at each other early in the year, and we thought, ‘Hey, we don’t know what our roles really are at this point,’” Merryweather said. “But we’ve gotten to this point in the year, and I think it’s been a great learning experience for a lot of guys. Me especially, just going through all those different roles and knowing what a full season really holds.”

Merryweather served as a bright spot in the Cubs’ disappointing season series against the Diamondbacks. Chicago lost six of seven games against Arizona, swapping places in the NL Wild Card standings on Sunday. Merryweather didn’t allow a hit in five shutout innings against the Diamondbacks. 

The last pitch he threw Saturday, in the ninth inning of a tie game, whizzed by rookie of the year frontrunner Corbin Carroll for a watched first strike. It gave catcher Yan Gomes time to pop up from a one-knee stance and catch Gabriel Moreno attempting to steal second, ending the inning and ushering in extras.


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