Justin Wilson emerging to fill key role in Cubs bullpen

WASHINGTON -- First impressions can be deceiving -- and sometimes lasting. Just ask any politician in this city. That also applies to relief pitchers, where a bad half-season can label you as untrustworthy for years to come.

But in Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon's world, there is no doghouse -- and there's always a way back. Lefty Justin Wilson is an example: He's found his way back and could be a huge key for an October run.

"What you're seeing is a strike-thrower with that little extra thing he has at the end [of his fastball]," Maddon said after the Cubs' 6-4 victory over the Washington Nationals in 10 innings Thursday. "That gets lefties and righties out. It's not just about getting lefties out."

Good thing Wilson can get both sides of the plate out, as he was called upon to clean up a mess in the eighth inning of a 4-4 game. Carl Edwards Jr. allowed baserunners to reach second and third, so there was no margin for error when Wilson came in to face righty Mark Reynolds with one out. Reynolds is hitting .316 off lefties this year. Eight pitches later, he struck out on a 96 mph fastball. Wilson then induced a fly ball by Wilmer Difo to end the inning and preserve the tie.

"That's the game," Maddon said. "That moment is the game. He got ready fast. He came out and threw strikes. Quality strikes."

At one time, throwing strikes was just about the hardest thing for Wilson to do. After being acquired by Chicago last July from the Detroit Tigers, the veteran fell apart. His walk rate skyrocketed to 20.9 percent with his new team. The first impression was a bad one, and it had fans asking the front office to send Wilson packing or for Maddon to bury him at the back end of the bullpen.

The problem was the Cubs didn't have other great options from the left side, so they went to work fixing him. They're lucky they did, because with closer Brandon Morrow a question mark with a bone bruise in his pitching arm, the Cubs need all the help they can get in the pen.

"We talked about that a lot in spring training," Maddon said. "He could be the linchpin to this whole season in the bullpen. Right now he's demonstrating that."

In what might be the most unappreciated stat of the year, Wilson leads all relievers with a 93.5 percent inherited-runner percentage. He's stranded all but two on the season, including two more Thursday.

Asked what the difference in Wilson is, Thursday starter Kyle Hendricks shrugged. "He's just making better pitches," Hendricks said.

Maddon echoed that thought, although the Cubs tinkered with Wilson's delivery to help his command. It's paid off in the form of 14 consecutive scoreless outings while striking out 65 in 50⅔ innings. With October approaching and other relievers, including the aforementioned Edwards, struggling, Wilson could very well be that linchpin Maddon talked about months ago.

"He never cried or complained," Maddon said. "His concept was he needed to pitch better."

So it seems some first impressions aren't lasting ones.