Cubs now need un­likely leader from bullpen

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - TOP OF THE SECOND - David Haugh David Haugh is a spe­cial con­trib­u­tor to the Chicago Tri­bune.

For con­text on the quandary that is the Cubs bullpen, con­sider that the de­fend­ing World Se­ries cham­pion Astros closed out their two most im­por­tant games last sea­son with­out a pitcher whose pri­mary pur­pose was to get the fi­nal three outs.

Lance McCullers Jr. threw four shutout in­nings to fin­ish off the Yan­kees in Game 7 of the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries. Char­lie Mor­ton staked his claim to base­ball im­mor­tal­ity by giv­ing up one run over the fi­nal four in­nings against the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Se­ries. Nei­ther McCullers nor Mor­ton, trusted mem­bers of the Astros ro­ta­tion, has a reg­u­lar-sea­son save in 15 com­bined ma­jor-league sea­sons.

But if you in­sist on find­ing an ex­am­ple of a pen­nant con­tender that en­tered late Septem­ber with­out an es­tab­lished closer, lest any­body in Chicago for­get re­liever Bobby Jenks of the White Sox. At least no­body on the South Side ever will. Jenks played a ma­jor role in the Sox cel­e­brat­ing a World Se­ries ti­tle in 2005, but as of Sept. 15 that sea­son, the rookie right-han­der had reg­is­tered ex­actly two saves. Jenks emerged late by ne­ces­sity more than de­sign. An in­jury pro­vided Jenks an op­por­tu­nity and he seized it, per­haps the way some­body in the Cubs bullpen will over the next few weeks.

That’s the best way for the Cubs to view the sit­u­a­tion man­ager Joe Mad­don created Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton. In a move that was as avoid­able as it was re­gret­table, Mad­don not only sent closer Pe­dro Strop to the plate in the 10th in­ning against the Na­tion­als but al­lowed him to swing in­stead of stand with the bat on his shoul­der. That ex­posed an un­der­rated re­lief pitcher who had con­verted 11 of 13 save sit­u­a­tions since mid-July to un­nec­es­sary risk.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Strop suf­fered a left ham­string in­jury try­ing to beat out a dou­ble-play ground ball, and his ab­sence could ex­tend into Oc­to­ber, cost­ing the Cubs their sec­ond closer this sea­son. If the Cubs had not ended the so-called curse two years ago, surely you would see goats wan­der­ing Wrigleyvil­le this week­end be­moan­ing Strop’s bad karma.

As a re­sult, Mad­don skep­tics re­sumed doubt­ing the smarts of the man­ager de­cid­ing what re­liever to use even more than the skills of the pitch­ers be­ing asked to get the fi­nal three outs. The Cubs won Thurs­day’s makeup game 4-3 in 10 in­nings thanks to an MVP ef­fort from Javier Baez, but the Tri­bune head­line could have read: “Cubs sur­vive Na­tion­als, Mad­don.”

It might have been Mad­don’s most du­bi­ous tac­ti­cal per­for­mance since Game 7 of the 2016 World Se­ries as enough of his moves mal­func­tioned to make the Cubs com­puter sys­tem, Ivy, re­quire a re­boot. Mad­don pulled starter Mike Mont­gomery after he gave up three hits in four-plus in­nings. He pinch hit slump­ing Will­son Con­tr­eras for hot-hit­ting Vic­tor Cara­tini, who drove in seven runs in the pre­vi­ous five games. He in­serted strug­gling re­liever Carl Ed­wards Jr., whose re­li­a­bil­ity Mad­don pub­licly ques­tioned ear­lier in the week, to pro­tect a lead Ed­wards even­tu­ally blew. He let Strop hit with the bases loaded and one out de­spite hav­ing his­tor­i­cally good pinch hit­ter Tommy La Stella avail­able. He put him­self in the po­si­tion of need­ing Strop to pitch the 10th be­cause he went to the bullpen too early.

Even good man­agers such as Mad­don have bad days, and this was one of his worst in the Cubs dugout. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make Mad­don un­fit for the play­offs or un­wor­thy of a con­tract ex­ten­sion in the off­sea­son. But it did make con­fi­dence in some parts of Cub­dom dip like Ian Happ’s bat­ting av­er­age be­cause of a lack of faith in Mad­don to shrewdly ma­neu­ver a bullpen full of guys un­ac­cus­tomed to pitch­ing the ninth in­ning.

What re­liever will help re­store it? The an­swer to that ques­tion still has a chance to pitch the Cubs deep into the play­offs and him­self into Cubs lore. The seven Cubs can­di­dates who likely will share the ninth-in­ning load — Justin Wil­son, Steve Cishek, Jesse Chavez, Bran­don Kint­zler, Jorge De La Rosa, Randy Rosario and Ed­wards — have 10 saves com­bined this sea­son.

Bran­don Mor­row could re­turn by the end of the Diamondbac­ks se­ries this week after a suc­cess­ful sim­u­lated game Satur­day. Op­ti­mists hope Strop can heal quickly enough to come back by the be­gin­ning of next month. Just keep both pitch­ers away from the bat­ting cage.

The Cubs still can be bet­ter for hav­ing en­dured 29 sched­uled games in 30 days if they wake up Thurs­day, at the end of the men­tally and phys­i­cally gru­el­ing stretch, still in first place with the abil­ity to re­fresh. They still can win the Na­tional League Cen­tral, and even the pen­nant in a weak NL, with Strop and Mor­row play­ing lim­ited roles — or no role at all — if a dan­ger­ous lineup gets hot again.

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