Column: Chicago Cubs need the bullpen to weather the storm in the stretch run

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Some fans might have been wondering where Chicago Cubs closer Adbert Alzolay was Monday night when Mark Leiter Jr. came out in the ninth inning with a two-run lead over the Detroit Tigers.

The games matter more as September looms, and Alzolay had converted 14 straight saves.

A few hours earlier, Alzolay had gone into manager David Ross’s office at Comerica Park and said he didn’t “feel great” after back-to-back outings the previous two games against the Kansas City Royals.

“That was an easy ‘no,’” Ross said Tuesday of his decision to not use Alzolay. Leiter gave up an infield hit and a run-scoring single, but managed to close out a 7-6 win in the opener of the three-game series.

Ross’s bullpen decisions have been the topic of great debate this season, though the foursome of Alzolay, Leiter, Julian Merryweather and Michael Fulmer have been instrumental in the team’s rise from mediocrity to realistic postseason contender.

The Cubs trailed the first-place Milwaukee Brewers by 2 1/2 games before Tuesday’s 8-6 loss to the Tigers and held the second National League wild-card spot.

The Cubs are now 4-3 during this soft spot in the schedule against teams struggling or in a rebuild.

“I feel like we can win every game,” said Dansby Swanson, who hit a home run and had 4 RBIs Tuesday. “That’s the approach and mindset everyone in this clubhouse takes. It’s so easy for people to get caught up in looking at certain stretches and saying this team isn’t as good. But baseball is ebb and flow. Kansas City was playing really well coming into our place, and I think the White Sox have started to put things together. These guys are no different ... It’s not that easy to go out and win every single game. I wish it was. We’re just going to keep chugging along.”

Drew Smyly, who was demoted to the bullpen but returned to the rotation due to Marcus Stroman’s mysterious right rib cartilage tear, got the start Tuesday and lasted just 3 2/3 innings, allowing 7 runs on 8 hits, including two home runs.

Asked if Smyly was better in the pen, Ross asked, “Who takes his spot in the rotation is the question? He’s in there because we’re a little short-handed right now. It was his first start back. Let’s give him a little bit of grace.”

Of course, the Cubs don’t have much time for a grace period, which means Smyly is pitching to stay in the rotation.

“It’s not my decision,” he said. “But yeah, I need to pitch better, obviously.”

Ross’s handling of the ’pen the rest of the way will undergo heavy scrutiny because of his reliance on the Big Four and the relative lack of experience in a pennant race outside of Fulmer. He got some big outs from rookies Daniel Palencia and Hayden Wesneski the last two games, while Fulmer struggled in his outing Monday and Jose Cuas had control issues in the ninth inning Tuesday.

Asked Tuesday if he had any concerns about the ’pen, Ross replied: “Sure, there is a heavy workload on those guys. You saw (Monday) trying to stay away from a number of those guys. Everyone wonders when you’re not able to roll out the guys that have been the best for you all year.

“But guys like Danny Palencia stepped up, and we’re going to need some of that ... We’ve been on a nice run. That’s a good thing. We’ve leaned on the guys that have pitched really well for us, and I don’t think we’re in the position we’re in without Merrywether, Leiter, Adbert, Fulmer. Those guys have carried a heavy workload.

“But I saw a stat we have the third-lowest bullpen innings of any bullpen in the league. So numbers-wise we’ve managed that pretty well. I’d also put a caveat on that. This run we’ve been on, winning a lot of games since the All-Star break, they’ve carried a heavy workload.”

That’s three mentions of a “heavy workload” in one breath for those keeping score at home.

The Cubs do rank third in fewest bullpen innings pitched in 2023, as Ross pointed out, but also had thrown the 12th-most innings (129) since the All-Star Break. The bullpen’s 4.05 ERA since the break ranked 12th entering Monday, and one of the more reliable relievers, Javier Assad, had moved into the rotation.

“I don’t stay away from guys,” Ross said. “If they tell me they can pitch, they’re going to pitch, unless we’re concerned about health ... I’m giving you a lot of honesty here. The bullpen is something you’ve got to navigate. It’s hard and you try to keep guys healthy.”

Leiter had a 2.04 ERA in the second half, but Alzolay (3.86), Merryweather (4.08) and Fulmer (4.73) have all had a few rough patches as the innings have added up.

Getting the starters to go longer would help Ross manage the ’pen much easier in the final 36 games, but that’s easier said than done, especially since Stroman’s late June struggles, leading to his stint on the injured list. Justin Steele has done the job all year, and Kyle Hendricks had lasted six or more innings in five of his last seven starts.

But Jameson Taillon has gone six or more innings in only three of his last seven, and Assad is still learning at the big-league level, as he showed Monday by tiring in the sixth.

The Cubs aren’t going to go anywhere if Smyly and the bullpen wither in the final month. It’s up to Ross, and the Big Four, to make sure that doesn’t happen.