Cubs now need unlikely leader from bullpen
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.