Alec Mills may have needed that start even more than the Cubs did, though calling it a must-win for either him or the team is probably too much. With all the recent attrition from the rotation, he wasn’t really in danger of losing his spot anytime soon. Still, giving up 21 earned runs and seven homers over his last five starts wasn’t indicative of continued success.
His mistakes weren’t frequent, but they often came in bunches and resulted in at least one ball flying out doing serious damage. Take his previous start against the Reds, in which three of the four hits he allowed ended up going over the wall at Great American Ball Park. The final homer came immediately after the only other hit he surrendered, a single to Nicholas Castellanos, though he exited after just three innings.
Mills was back on point Tuesday night, though, mixing and matching his pitches to keep Reds hitters off-balance. He tallied a career-high 13 swings and misses on the evening, good for a season-high 31.7% whiff rate that stands as the fifth-highest percentage he’s ever racked up in a game. As you can probably infer, most of the higher percentages came in relief appearances with fewer pitches.
— Russell Dorsey (@Russ_Dorsey1) September 9, 2020
Though he only ended up with six strikeouts, it was the ability to keep his opponents guessing that allowed Mills to cruise through the order multiple times without allowing a run. He was locating his fastball and sinker effectively, his slider was biting, and his changeup had hitters out in front. And it was all made possible by the crown jewel of his arsenal.
That sounds a little odd to say when he threw his big, slow curve only seven times (6.9%) in the game, but it’s a unique pitch that everyone knows about by now. As such, hitters have to be on guard for it like the antagonist in a slasher movie. You’re on edge waiting for it to jump out, then you get a slider. By the time you think you’re safe, that hook comes rolling in and you lunge into a defensive swing that does next to nothing.
“I could talk about Mills all day, man,” fellow curveball practitioner Duane Underwood Jr. told reporters after the game. “I think the way he twirls the ball, it’s a unique thing and a beautiful thing. If I tried to throw a 66-mph curveball, I don’t know. It wouldn’t hit the strike zone.”
Interestingly enough, the 66.9 mph average velo on Mills’ curve Tuesday night represents the second-hardest he has thrown it this season. He was close to 70 on the first one he threw, which didn’t come until the final pitch to the fifth batter he faced, but just having it in his back pocket made the fastball play up and allowed Mills to attack Reds hitters with it.
“Hey, here’s a fastball, see how hard you can hit it,” Mills said of his strategy. “A lot of times, they’re not going to be able to get it out of the yard and maybe not do as much damage.”
It helped that the wind was blowing in pretty hard, which certainly helped Mills and the other pitchers for both teams. Javy pounded a ball that probably would have ended up on the street had it not been chewed up by the teeth of a 20 mph headwind. But that’s the reality of the game and everyone needs to adjust. Knowing he had a little help allowed Mills to better implement his game plan.
“Little adaptations,” Mills explained when asked how he stayed ahead of the Cincy hitters. “Little changes here and there can do big things, as far as different fastballs, different parts of the zone, up and down. I think that was kind of an emphasis just for me tonight, to change a little bit up.”
His final game score of 69 was the second-highest of his career, bested only by the 75 he posted against his former team in the Cubs’ 2-0 win over the Royals on August 3. That’s exactly the kind of nice effort that could earn Mills a spot as the third starter when the postseason rolls around. He isn’t willing to discuss that possibility yet, at least not publicly, but the Cubs only have two sure bets in that regard and Mills is as good a bet as any.
For now, he and the rest of the back-end starters need to figure out a way to keep stacking up wins and ensuring the Cubs do more than just back into the playoffs.