Chicago Cubs bullpen fails 1st test without reliever Julian Merryweather, who will be sidelined at least a month

SAN DIEGO — It all happened so quickly Monday night at Petco Park that a blowout Chicago Cubs victory turned into a nightmare within minutes.

Instead of the Cubs cruising to a big win to kick off a tough road trip, the San Diego Padres matched their biggest comeback in franchise history by erasing the Cubs’ eight-run lead and handing them a 9-8 loss.

The Cubs’ 8-0 advantage entering the bottom of the sixth evaporated in a seven-run inning, erasing a solid outing from starter Javier Assad. He got the hook after Jake Cronenworth’s two-run home run with nobody out in the sixth, and everything spiraled from there.

The Padres ambushed reliever Jose Cuas. After shortstop Dansby Swanson’s fielding error, the Padres tagged the sidearmer for three runs in a five-batter, 10-pitch sequence to cut the Cubs’ lead to three. Left-hander Luke Little surrendered a two-run homer to Xander Bogaerts, sandwiched between the second and third outs.

“Momentum is a real thing and they were obviously able to capture it and we weren’t able to push back away a little bit,” Swanson said. “So you’ve got to give them some credit for really piecing together some good at-bats in the late stage of the game.”

On a night the Cubs should not have needed to use Adbert Alzolay, he was called on in the eighth for a five-out save attempt. Fernando Tatis Jr. punished a 1-0 slider down in the zone to send a go-ahead, two-out, two-run homer over the left-field wall.

“We just couldn’t stop it anywhere, really,” manager Craig Counsell said. “It was just one of those nights where they had some good at-bats and we couldn’t make the next pitch, get the next out, and they made us pay for it.”

The bullpen fell apart trying to maintain the eight-run lead in its first big test after imaging Monday revealed that reliever Julian Merryweather sustained a rib stress fracture in his upper back that landed him on the 15-day injured list Sunday.

Merryweather will be shut down for four weeks to let the fracture heal. He will then undergo imaging again to check how the fracture is progressing and to determine the next steps. His timeline to return is unclear, but he will require a ramp-up period.

It leaves the Cubs without Merryweather for the foreseeable future.

“You’ve got to close the hole around him and a lot of people have to fill into that spot, but it’s a significant loss for sure,” Counsell said. “His versatility, the quality that he brought, is going to be missed.”

The issue cropped up on one of Merryweather’s final pitches Friday to Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Shohei Ohtani. He felt something was off afterward, though the Cubs didn’t think much of it until Merryweather reported feeling sore the next two days.

“We’ve got to pick him up,” Cuas said. “When someone goes down, we’ve got to step it up, pick them up. For us it’s doing our job, for me to do my job and the next guy does his job. … There’s going to be days like this and it’s important for us to bounce back and come back tomorrow, forget about this (game) and move on.”

The Cubs initially hoped Merryweather would need only a short IL stint. Instead they’re hit with another injury to their most versatile reliever. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer lauded Merryweather for being a split-neutral pitcher about whom they didn’t need to worry which pocket of hitters he faced.

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“It was probably a little worse diagnosis than we had imagined and we’ll just have to get through it,” Hoyer said. “People have to step up.”

No single reliever on the Cubs roster can readily fill Merryweather’s role. Between his ability to handle high-leverage spots and pitch more than one inning, something he has done twice this season, the Cubs will be relying on multiple pitchers to take on his responsibilities.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that Merryweather has time to heal and still can provide a meaningful impact over the final months. The injury also happened early enough in the season that the Cubs have a chance to see who emerges from the additional opportunities, which could benefit them in the long run.

Right-hander Daniel Palencia earned a promotion Sunday to replace Merryweather and became the “unsung hero,” as Counsell called him, in the series finale against the Dodgers. Palencia allowed one run in a three-inning save after a lengthy rain delay at Wrigley Field, saving the bullpen in an 8-1 win ahead of the Cubs’ three-city West Coast trip.

“A game like that doesn’t get much attention because it feels like the game’s kind of decided,” Counsell said of Palencia.

Another eight-run lead proved tougher to lock down Monday.