Cubs reliever Julian Merryweather was teetering through the eighth inning, loading the bases with a double sandwiched by two walks.
Coming off a blowup outing in his last appearance and setting a career high in innings with every out, the effort to preserve a one-run lead in the latest must-win affair for the Cubs’ playoff hopes was a situation worth pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s intervention.
“Mechanically, Tommy identified some things and went out and talked to him and tried to look at where his misses were,” manager David Ross said. “To lock that back in was big for us. We’re going to need him to be what he’s been for us all year.”
Until Merryweather was able to spin sliders to strike out Brenton Doyle and Charlie Blackmon, sealing a scoreless escape in an eventual 6-3 win, the litany of reliever injury updates Saturday were top of mind.
Adbert Alzolay (forearm strain) played catch after the first bullpen session during his rehab process the day before, preserving hope for a return in the final weekend. Brad Boxberger went on the injured list with a forearm strain again, ending his regular season, at a minimum.
Michael Fulmer won’t be eligible to return from the same injury until the season’s final days. Keegan Thompson was recalled to take Boxberger’s spot but isn’t expected to factor into high-leverage situations.
Javier Assad threw four scoreless innings that rescued a shaky return to the rotation for Marcus Stroman, effectively serving as the bulk pitcher. The state of the Cubs’ bullpen is such that Ross will immediately pivot to using Assad however he’s needed in relief.
“We’ve just got to be ready,” Assad said through an interpreter. “We’ve just got to make sure that we stay healthy and we stay ready for whatever situation.”
On Saturday, that included Jose Cuas recording his first save in a Cubs uniform. Expect more of the same.
“It’s definitely a different formula than we worked with early on,” Ross said. “Guys are going to have to step up.”
Ross texted Pirates manager Derek Shelton on Friday night after a wave of response to his comment Thursday that Pittsburgh was “not a good team.”
“Frustrated after a game, but have got a ton of respect for every team we play, not just Pittsburgh,” Ross said, praising the work of the Pirates’ coaching staff. “I was more talking about us and how we played.”
The Pirates’ current opponents are chasing the Cubs in the wild-card race, so Ross will sleep well if he winds up motivating them.
“Hopefully they use my words and kick the crap out of the Reds.”
Mastrobuoni hitting in a pinch
A run of four starts at third base could end Sunday for Miles Mastrobuoni, with Jeimer Candelario on the mend. If so, the 27-year-old utilityman ended it by going 2-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base leading to an eighth-inning insurance run.
After simplifying his mechanics and approach, Mastrobuoni is 8-for-15 with four runs scored in as many games.
“I’ve really done a pretty good job of staying on the fastball and reacting to everything else,” Mastrobuoni said. “Hit some off-speed pitches hard the past couple of days. The thing that’s been good for me is I haven’t been looking for those. It’s understanding to trust myself, trust my swing.”