Chicago Sun-Times

Assad excelling in spring Classic

With improved velocity, Cubs righty helps Mexico reach WBC semifinals

- BY MADDIE LEE | | @maddie_m_lee

MESA, Ariz. — First-base prospect Matt Mervis kept tabs on his fellow Cubs in the World Baseball Classic while he was with Team Israel. And when he returned to Cubs camp on Friday, he had an observatio­n to share about Javier Assad.

“Everyone continues to be surprised by him,” Mervis said, “but at what point do we realize that he’s that good?”

There was a similar sentiment among those who had played with Assad after his lights-out performanc­e for Mexico against the United States on Sunday.

He made his second WBC appearance in Mexico’s 5-4 quarterfin­al victory Friday against Puerto Rico and threw 2‰ scoreless innings.

Assad is competing for the Cubs’ fifthstart­er spot, which manager David Ross said Friday was still undecided — “I don’t even have the Opening Day starter decided,” he quipped. But if Assad doesn’t make the Opening Day rotation, he still could make the roster.

The Cubs’ long-relief roles might not be as set as they appeared entering spring training. The Cubs are monitoring multi-inning reliever Keegan Thompson’s dip in velocity this spring, and they aren’t ruling out a bullpen role for Assad or Adrian Sampson. The team values length in the bullpen early in the season when pitchers aren’t as built up as they’ll be later in the year.

Mexico put Assad in a multi-inning relief role with Taijuan Walker, Julio Urias and Jose Urquidy in the rotation.

The “surprise” came not just from Assad mowing down a U.S. lineup full of All-Stars — in three innings, he allowed only one baserunner — but also from his jump in velocity compared to last season.

Assad also surprised people when he debuted last August, throwing nine scoreless innings combined in his first two majorleagu­e starts. He had a few rocky outings after that but finished with a 3.11 ERA. In nine appearance­s, his fastball averaged 93 mph.

This offseason, Assad went through a velocity program that employed core velocity belt training, weighted plyo balls, lifting and conditioni­ng. He tweaked his mechanics, focusing on driving off his back leg and not flying open too early.

“I feel really good about where I am,” Assad said last month. “Being able to work on my mechanics and staying close allowed me to really see my breaking ball a little bit more, my changeup, and I can see the zone a lot better because of it.”

Against the United States, he touched 97 mph. It was a put-away pitch against the first batter he faced in the WBC, Pete Alonso. The fastball zipped up and in on Alonso, clipping the corner of the strike zone and generating a whiff.

“I knew he’s fearless,” Ross said of the outing, “but you could see it in that environmen­t there.”

Left-hander Justin Steele, who has been in the Cubs’ system with Assad since they signed him out of Mexico in 2015, was just as unsurprise­d as Mervis.

“That’s Assad, baby,” Steele said. “That’s just how he is. He’s really good. I’ve watched him for quite some time now.”

On Friday, Assad replaced Urias in the fifth inning, with Mexico trailing Puerto Rico 4-1. He allowed a single to Francisco Lindor and walked MJ Melendez but didn’t allow another baserunner. Assad retired six consecutiv­e batters, striking out four.

After what he has shown this spring, that performanc­e against a strong Puerto Rican lineup wasn’t much of a surprise. ✶

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Javier Assad had a strong outing against Team USA last Sunday (above), then helped Mexico top Puerto Rico on Friday in a World Baseball Classic quarterfin­al.
GETTY IMAGES Javier Assad had a strong outing against Team USA last Sunday (above), then helped Mexico top Puerto Rico on Friday in a World Baseball Classic quarterfin­al.
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