A diminished Max Scherzer could change the entire complexion of Cubs-Nationals


A diminished Max Scherzer could change the entire complexion of Cubs-Nationals

As the Cubs break down the Washington Nationals on video, synthesize their scouting reports and run through different scenarios for the playoff roster, this data point might loom larger than anything else: Max Scherzer landing awkwardly Saturday night, walking off the mound with a damaged right leg and getting a precautionary MRI.

By Sunday morning, Scherzer was telling Washington reporters that he had a hamstring “tweak” – not a “major strain” – without guaranteeing that he would be ready to face the Cubs five days later and start Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.

“That’s a definite, the ‘tweak,’ at it’s defined by the American Medical Association,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game 162 at Wrigley Field. “I’m always curious about how we all try to play semantically with injuries. I have no idea what a ‘tweak’ is. A ‘tweak’ could be a sprain or a strain. I have no idea. But I love the word ‘tweak.’”

Maddon isn’t a doctor, but there are times where he has to play one on TV, trying to answer injury questions without a complete medical picture and without revealing too much information. The Cubs are already going through this with their own Cy Young Award winner.

Jake Arrieta hobbled off the field on Labor Day at PNC Park and downplayed the grabbing sensation in his right leg, hoping it might have just been cramping that knocked him out in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even after an MRI revealed a Grade 1 strain, Arrieta talked about getting back on the mound in a few days and missing only one or two starts.

Arrieta wound up going 17 days in between starts, having mixed results against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (six runs allowed, four earned, in eight innings combined) and getting scratched from Sunday’s start against the Cincinnati Reds.

The hope is the extra rest will help Arrieta – who came back at less than 100 percent – recover in time for a Game 3 or 4 against the Nationals. By waiting until Oct. 9-10,  he would get roughly two full weeks in between starts.

Scherzer made the point that he could still potentially start Games 2 and 5 if he needed an extra day of treatment. But a compromised Scherzer could change the entire complexion of this best-of-five series.

“Of course,” Maddon said. “We’re going to find that out. Obviously, absolutely, it can. Just like Jake. Having to push Jake back a little bit, same-same. Hammies are funny. We’ve talked about that.

“To the extent that he did it – if it was just a cramp – that’s something entirely different. You get over that. You just drink a lot of fluids – you’re fine. But if it was actually some kind of injury to it…it could be a Grade 2 tweak.”

Maddon again laughed at the “tweak” lines and knows enough about “Mad Max” after selecting him as the NL’s starting pitcher for the All-Star Game and interacting with him during this summer’s festivities in South Florida.

Even while abruptly leaving Saturday’s start against the Pirates in the fourth inning, Scherzer may have put the finishing touches on his third Cy Young Award campaign: 16-6, 2.51 ERA, 268 strikeouts in 200-plus innings.

“Mr. Scherzer is one of the best that I’ve ever seen,” Maddon said. “Regardless of whether you got your Grade-A lineup or not, when this guy’s on, it’s difficult. You have to pitch a little bit better than him, and that’s really going a long ways.”

Scherzer already beat the Cubs once this season – a 6-1 win on June 27 at Nationals Park – at a time when Arrieta (4.67 ERA) hadn’t found his second-half stride yet and injuries to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward limited the lineup possibilities. An offense that would score 800-plus runs again wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, and the Cubs will draw from their unique playoff experiences last October into early November.   

“You just got to look for that edge in the game,” Maddon said. “Whatever you want to call it or describe it is the fact that you have the guys that are supposed to be out there, out there vs. him. And you’re playing in this situation that you’re somewhat used to and you’re confident. Those are the things that will work in our favor.

“But when this guy’s on, I don’t care who you’re throwing up there to the plate, this guy’s that good. (So) whenever you have a chance to score a run with an out, score a run with an out. Anything that occurs that permits you to take a little – and move the needle a little bit – you got to do it because he is that good.”

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?

Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal

Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal

The Cubs added another piece to their 2018 bullpen Wednesday.

Brian Duensing will return to the North Side relief corps on a two-year deal.

The veteran left-hander had himself a very strong 2017 campaign, his first year with the Cubs, turning in a 2.74 ERA in 62.1 innings of work over 68 appearances. He struck out 61 batters and walked just 18.

Duensing made five appearances during the postseason, surrendering one run in 5.1 innings against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. That one run came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

Duensing's return helps to strengthen a bullpen with some new faces and some question marks heading into spring training. Wade Davis departed via free agency and signed a record deal with the Colorado Rockies to be their new closer, meaning closing duties will likely fall to free-agent acquisition Brandon Morrow, who pitched in plenty of late-inning and high-leverage situations with the Dodgers last season. The Cubs also added former Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners closer Steve Cishek in free agency. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop return from last year's team and figure to play important roles, as well.

And apparently, Duensing took less money in order to come back to the Cubs.