Ethan Roberts ‘Convicted’ Thursday Night as Learning Curve Steepens

Nobody said it was easy.

An inning before Chris Martin came into the game to hold the Pirates at bay, righty Ethan Roberts took another step forward in his progression as a lockdown reliever. The outing wasn’t what he or the Cubs wanted, of course, but what matters long-term is that he walks away from his mistakes a better pitcher.

“I’m going to learn every time I get out there,” Roberts told the media after the game. “I think the biggest thing that I want to get over is just being confident in myself. It’s a hard game. If it was easy, everybody would do it. You hear that all the time, but it’s tough. It’s an adjustment.”

With the Cubs up 3-2 after four innings, David Ross went to the ‘pen and Roberts got immediate results with a three-pitch strikeout of Roberto Perez. Hoy Park then doubled on a full-count cutter down in the zone and Daniel Vogelbach walked as Roberts appeared to be nibbling a little at the corners. When Bryan Reynolds struck out, it felt as though the Cubs would still manage to escape the inning unscathed.

Then came a four-pitch walk to Ke’Bryan Hayes in which the first offering appeared to clip the top of the zone before a pair of breaking balls just missed low and/or away.

“I missed some sliders on Hayes,” Roberts explained. “If I throw those for strikes, that whole at-bat’s a different story. Again, that’s a pitch I’ve been throwing for three weeks. So, it’s just an adjustment period for me.”

When he says he’s only been throwing the slider for a few weeks, he’s being serious. Assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos introduced Roberts to the new grip on March 27 and the righty had time to throw it in just two Cactus League games. So while he took to the pitch immediately in terms of generating incredible movement, there continues to be an adjustment period when it comes to knowing where to throw the pitch.

“Part of it is an element of trust that it’s going to move when I start it there,” Moskos told the Tribune. “If you are aiming at a right-handed batter to start your slider line, you have to trust that it’s going to break so that you don’t just give up a free hit by pitch if you leave it arm side.”

Roberts didn’t throw that slider to Yoshi Tsutsugo, opting instead for a quartet of cutters that got him up 0-2 on a pair of called strikes and two foul balls. A fifth cutter sailed wide before the sixth one of the at-bat caught too much of the plate and got served into left field for a go-ahead double.

“In my head, I see a hole up in that upper-right box. That corner,” Roberts said after the game. “I shook off one or two curveballs in that at-bat to get to a fastball again. That’s on me. But I’m never going to not be convicted in what I throw.

“And I was convicted in throwing those fastballs. It’s just, sometimes you get clipped.”

It’s disingenuous to say Thursday’s outing didn’t matter, but that’s probably accurate in terms of what the result means for either the Cubs’ season or Roberts’s eventual stat line. When it comes to his growth as an MLB reliever, however, this sort of rough patch might end up being the best thing for him. He has to trust that he’s good enough to beat big league hitters without getting cute, which I’m willing to guarantee he already knows.

Now it’s just a matter of having conviction in every pitch, and avoiding those situations like the one he just fought through. With a little more time to feel out that sweeping slider and get used to both his batterymates and opponents, my money’s on Roberts to continue improving over the course of the season.

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