By Chris Kowalczyk
CHICAGO – For the Chicago Cubs, the 2010 season will essentially be another lost summer on the corner of Clark and Addison. If you’re scoring at home, the Wrigleyville nine are all but assured their 102nd straight season without a World Series title.
VCU alumnus Sean Marshall would like to think he’s closer to being part of the solution for the Cubs’ woes than not, and he’d be right, especially this season. Blanketed under the ills of a fourth-place team has been a relief renaissance for the Richmond, Va. native.
“It’s been good,” said Marshall, a sixth-round draft choice of the Cubs in 2003. “I’ve had a real fun season so far.”
A former starting pitcher, Marshall has quietly earned distinction as one of baseball’s best relievers in 2010. As Chicago’s eighth inning set-up man, Marshall has crafted a 2.34 ERA over 61-plus innings. His career-high 62 appearances through Aug. 15 were tied for the second-most in the National League, and his 74 strikeouts ranked fourth among NL relievers.
It’s not the role he had envisioned for himself prior to the season, but Marshall’s made the most of his opportunities.
“In spring training I guess it was a four-person competition for two spots in the rotation and I pitched really well,” Marshall said. “I probably deserved a role to start, but they needed some help in the bullpen and I had some experience there last year and some the year before, so I know it was a necessity. Our bullpen hasn’t been very good this year and I’ve been able to anchor some games down there with Carlos Marmol in the back end of some games.”
In 2008 and 2009, Marshall, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound lefty, was the vagabond of the Cubs pitching staff. Marshall appeared in 89 games the previous two seasons, including 16 starts. His appearances out of the bullpen were uneven. One week he’d be a long reliever, the next a setup guy and then maybe a left-handed specialist.
This season, consistency has reigned. All 62 appearances have come from the ‘pen, and Marshall has been asked to throw two innings or more in a game just five times this year.
“I’ve been able to settle into a routine and I think that’s been the biggest thing, just staying with one job instead of starting to the bullpen to short relief, back to starting,” Marshall said. “It’s tough to do that, because you’re essentially playing a different position.”
Marshall’s experience as a starter has prepared him for his 2010 role. Starting hurlers often need three or more major-league quality pitches in order to combat the constant adjustments of professional hitters. But for Marshall, that’s no longer an issue.
“I can stick to what I do best,” He said. “As a starter you may have to get a guy out with three different pitches in three different at-bats. As a reliever you’re facing them one time. My best pitch is my curveball, so I’m able to just attack them with my curveball and it makes my fastball better off of that.”
Marshall’s success, as well as the Cubs’ failures and a rash of injuries, have also cast the 27-year-old into another unlikely role, that of a grizzled veteran. Although he won’t turn 28 until the end of August, Marshall is currently the oldest reliever in Chicago’s bullpen.
“In spring training as a bullpen we thought we were set, and then we had some key injuries and had to turn to some rookies,” Marshall said. “I remember when I was a rookie and you have to adapt to getting major league hitters out. I feel like I can mentor these guys a little bit because I’ve been through it and I’ve learned the ropes, sometimes the hard way too.”
As much as he’s enjoying this season, the best in his five-year big league career, Marshall won’t rule out moving back into a starting rotation in the future. Either way, he’ll be ready. In the meantime, he’s relishing his new role.
“As a starter you don’t get a chance to redeem yourself until four days later,” He says. “I might have a rough outing one day and then I get the ball the next day in the same situation or a different situation and that’s cool, so you have to focus for that. But yeah, I like it, and I think I can make a name for myself out of the bullpen. “