The Cubs escaped what could have been a crushing loss by just a few feet on Monday night, leaving Wrigley with a 6-5 win over the A’s after leading 6-2 heading into the eighth inning. The final out in the top of the ninth came stressfully, as with two runners on and the A’s down by just one, Marcus Semien came to the plate. The Oakland shortstop had hit two dongs in the game already—including one in the previous inning off relief pitcher Steve Cishek—and facing newly entered reliever David Phelps, Semien cranked another high, arcing ball to left. But scrambling near the ivy this time was outfielder Ian Happ, who caught the ball on the track for the win.
Eighth and ninth innings like the ones seen last night might become a disturbing regularity for Cubs as they continue to try and put some space between themselves and their division rivals, because this bullpen is a haphazardly glued-together collage of injured talents, mediocre journeymen, anonymous filler, and unproven kids. Most prominent among these shaky arms is big-name signing Craig Kimbrel, who came to the team in June and proceeded to pitch, for obvious reasons, like a guy who didn’t have the benefit of Spring Training this year. After 14 games and 12.2 innings, Kimbrel’s ERA sits at 5.68, his WAR sits at -0.4, and his ass sits on the IL with a knee inflammation.
Kimbrel, who had at least held the opposition scoreless in his last two outings, claimed that the injury came just as he “was getting real close” to his old self. But even if Kimbrel were at full strength, the Cubs would still have plenty to worry about. Pedro Strop has been a solid arm for quite some time on this franchise, but this season he’s imploded on more than a few occasions, and right now he’s injured, too. New signing Brad Brach has had a career-worst year with the Cubs that mercifully came to an end when the team officially released him yesterday. Carl Edwards is suddenly bad and also a Padre now. Brandon Kintzler, maybe the lone bright spot in that bullpen, had to leave Monday’s game with a right pec issue, putting his future in doubt. (He’s going to throw before Tuesday’s game to test how it feels.*) And Steve Cishek, the team’s leader in innings pitched among relievers, has given up three dingers in his past four showings. It’s getting so scary in their bullpen that the Cubs are setting sights on a guy who’s been long gone from the mound, hoping he might be the one to save them:
(Brandon) Morrow just turned 35 at the end of last month and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues in more than a year, but he’s still plugging away on the comeback trail.
“He’s feeling good,” (Cubs GM) Jed Hoyer said Monday. “He’s throwing right now; he’s out to 120 feet. We’ve been getting good reports about how he’s feeling and that’s the most important thing. I’ve said all along — we’re cautiously optimistic.
“He’d be an unbelievable shot in the arm if he can do it.”
In the present day, however, the desperate Cubs are merely left hoping that rookie righty Rowan Wick can keep up his brief but promising run of 6.2 scoreless innings since returning to the Majors two weeks ago, and that another underestimated arm in Kyle Ryan—who spent all of last year in AAA—can continue to show improvement as he’s become more and more important to this squad. And while other teams with bullpen issues—namely the Braves—took relatively eye-catching steps to improve their situation, the Cubs only acquired a replacement-level Blue Jay in David Phelps and a recently DFA-ed Derek Holland from the Giants. Their biggest move—the trade with the Tigers for Nicholas Castellanos—signified how this team knows it’s going to need some high-octane offense to cover for its deficiencies if it wants to avoid slipping down in the standings.
But the Cubs are, despite their problems, still currently riding a four-game win streak—including a sweep of Milwaukee over the weekend. That’s been powered mostly by strong offense from stars like Javy Baez and good outings from solid starting pitchers like the consistent Kyle Hendricks. But given that their starters rarely go for more than six, an improved bullpen is going to be a necessity, not a luxury, for these final two months of the season. Because for the Cubs, more than maybe any of MLB’s top teams, the stakes of these upcoming games are huge.
Some division leaders—like the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers—might be able to survive a slump of a couple weeks or so. But the Cubs, at a relatively unimpressive 61-51, are currently first place in the most competitive division in the league, the NL Central, and with the Cardinals and Brewers breathing down their necks, just a brief stretch of unreliability from their relief pitchers could easily drop them down to the Wild Card. Once in that play-in game, their chances of making the real playoffs would essentially hinge on a coin flip. And with the guys the Cubs have pitching in high-leverage situations right now, I wouldn’t like their odds.
*Update (8:15 p.m.): Kintzler is on the IL now, and Strop is off it.