DENVER — Mapping out the Cubs bullpen in a tight game, even with an extra pitcher on the roster in September, is no longer as simple as working backwards from closer Adbert Alzolay.
“It’s incredible what he’s done the whole year, and especially the last three months, taking over that role and running with it,” bullpen coach Chris Young said of Alzolay, whom the Cubs put on the 15-day IL Monday. “It’s been incredible. And the stability that that provides your bullpen is something that feeds down from the ninth. … It’s a time of year now where it’s next man up, and here we go. And let’s make sure we take care of him getting back as fast as we can, where he’s healthy and strong and ready to do what he does best.”
Look at the Cubs’ series opener against the Rockies, and the ripple effect it had over the course of the three-game set.
The Cubs had a two-run lead going into the seventh, when the bullpen took over for rookie Jordan Wicks after another strong start.
With a healthy and rested bullpen, Alzolay would have been penciled in for a potential ninth-inning save situation, and Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. would handle the seventh and eighth innings. In addition to Alzolay being on the IL, Merryweather had pitched in each of the Cubs’ last three games, so he wasn’t available.
Manager David Ross called on José Cuas, who joined the team at the trade deadline and quickly earned trust late in games. He’d allowed just one run in his last eight appearances combined. But on Monday, he surrendered three runs, marking the first time he’d been charged with multiple runs in an outing as a Cub.
Left-hander Drew Smyly, who spent most of the season in the rotation, relieved Cuas as the Rockies batting order turned over to a left-handed heavy top. Smyly kept the Rockies at bay long enough to let the Cubs offense retake the lead in the ninth.
Michael Fulmer, fresh off the 15-day IL (strained right forearm), came in with one out in the final inning, facing a right-handed pocket of the lineup. He walked the first batter he faced and hit the second but bore down to record two strikeouts and earn the save.
“It’s our chance to step up and try to fill those needs and continue to push towards playoffs,” Smyly said after throwing 1 ⅔ shutout innings Monday.
Earlier in the season, the back end of the Cubs bullpen didn’t solidify all at once . It was a months-long process of, essentially, trial and error. By June, Merryweather, Leiter and Alzolay had solidified their roles in a turning point for the Cubs’ season. It’s no wonder Alzolay landing on the IL has destabilized the team’s late-inning rhythm.
There were warning signs that the physical toll could catch up to the back end of the bullpen late in the year.
None of the three had navigated so many high-leverage outings before. Alzolay, a converted starter, had never thrown in back-to-back games before this season. Only late last year, Leiter honed his approach in a late-inning role as part of an inexperienced Cubs bullpen. And since the All-Star break alone, Merryweather has thrown more major-league innings than his previous season high.
The Cubs had all of those factors on their radar. But without the addition of a veteran reliever at the deadline, they continued to lean on the trio that had earned trust in close games, trying to navigate the reliever’s aches and pains but also asking them to push through. The Cubs’ 5-4 win on Monday was the Cubs’ 16th one-run game since Aug. 1, the most in MLB.
The Cubs lost their next two contests in Colorado. A short start from Javier Assad on Tuesday made for a four-reliever effort to finish out a 6-4 defeat. Three of the four — Luke Little, Daniel Palencia and Hayden Wesneski — were rookies, and veteran Brad Boxberger was making his first appearance back from an almost four-month IL stint.
On Sunday, in the Cubs’ 7-3 loss, Wesneski pitched 1 ⅓ innings on the second day of a back-to-back, Smyly appeared on one day’s rest, and Boxberger threw a clean eighth.
The Cubs’ off day Thursday gave the bullpen much-needed time to recuperate before facing the Diamondbacks this weekend. The Cubs played 27 games in 27 days, with a doubleheader in the middle of that stretch.