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Cubs shake up bullpen with James Russell and Anthony Varvaro

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Cubs shake up bullpen with James Russell and Anthony Varvaro

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs shook up their bullpen on Tuesday, adding right-hander Anthony Varvaro, bringing back lefty James Russell and still feeling like they’re not done moving pieces around.

This isn’t sustainable for a team that envisions itself as a contender: The bullpen blew its fifth save in Monday night’s 10-9 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, while the rotation has accounted for only 12 quality starts through 24 games.

“We’ve let some games slip away that we could have won,” general manger Jed Hoyer said at Busch Stadium. “But that is the nature of bullpens. They can be volatile. We’ve played a sixth of the season and we’ve already had, I’d say, two good stretches and two bad stretches. We just have to even those things out a little bit.”

The Cubs claimed Varvaro off waivers from the Boston Red Sox, where he had gotten squeezed out of a bullpen that needed more of a long man. Varvaro had gone 6-4 with a 2.74 ERA and 19 holds across the previous two seasons with the Atlanta Braves.

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In corresponding moves, the Cubs placed outfielder Chris Denorfia on the disabled list, optioned right-hander Gonzalez Germen to Triple-A Iowa and designated right-hander Blake Parker for assignment.

Russell — who had been drafted and developed by the organization and traded to the Braves at last summer’s deadline — dominated at Iowa. After getting released by the Braves near the end of spring training, Russell signed a minor-league deal and put up 12 strikeouts against zero walks in 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa.

The shape of the bullpen will change again with Justin Grimm. The question now is whether he will make a second rehab appearance with Iowa or get cleared to rejoin the Cubs after recovering from his right forearm injury.

Neil Ramirez — another hard-throwing reliever for what was supposed to be a lights-out bullpen — is scheduled to throw off a mound on Wednesday at the team’s Arizona complex as he works through right shoulder inflammation.

“Knock on wood, guys will get healthy, but it’s hard to count on that,” Hoyer said. “You have to almost assume that you’re going to be scrambling all the time, because when one guy gets healthy, a lot of times another guy might go down. I don’t think you can look forward and say: ‘When we’re healthy.’ Because that never seems to ever really happen.”

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

Cubs third baseman David Bote charged down the line and called off pitcher Alec Mills.

Bote snagged the bunt with his bare right hand and slung it across is body. Bote’s throw to first beat the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi by half a step.

“It does nothing but fire you up,” Mills said after the Cubs’ 2-0 win over the Royals on Monday.

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Bote had been filling in for Kris Bryant at third for the previous two games, but when Bryant returned on Monday, Bote remained in the lineup. Even as a role player, Bote entered Monday's series opener with a top-5 batting average (.278) on the team and  tied for second in RBIs (5). But Cubs manager David Ross also trusted him in the infield with a groundball pitcher on the mound. Bote’s defense shone.

It stood out even in a game that included an outstanding tag by shortstop Javier Báez to catch a runner stealing and Jason Heyward covering a ton of ground in right field.

“I’m proud of our defense,” Ross said. “That’s something that we’ve emphasized that could be better, and it’s been so great. These guys are getting a lot of work in.”

This time, Bote knew long before the game that he was playing. On Saturday, when Bryant was a late scratch due to an upset stomach, Bote found out five minutes before first pitch that he was starting at third base.

On Monday, Bote remained at third, and Bryant started in left field. That setup put extra speed in left on a windy day and allowed Kyle Schwarber, who had played in left for the past three games, to be the designated hitter.

Bote worked with bench coach Andy Green on slow-rolling ground balls before the game, according to Ross.

 “This is one of the teams that bunt a lot in this league,” Báez said, “and we were ready for it.”

Bote proved that with a bare-handed grab seventh inning, when the Cubs were protecting a one-run lead. He threw out Mondesi for the final out of the inning.  But then, he made another bare-handed play the next inning.

Bare-handing a bunt and throwing across the body on the run is a play exclusive to third basemen. The downside of playing multiple positions is a utility man like Bote has to spread his receptions out among those positions.

Bote had attempted a bare-handed play once before in the season, but he didn’t field it cleanly – there’s a reason infielders use their gloves whenever possible. The margin for error is so much smaller without them.

In the eighth inning, Whit Merrifield hit a weak ground ball to Bote. The third baseman charged, fielded the ball with his right hand, and again threw across the diamond on the run. That was the second out of the inning.

“Both of those plays could have gone either way,” Bryant said of Bote’s bare-handed grabs, “and then there’s runners on base there. You don’t know how the game’s going to turn out.”

Case in point: Jorge Soler hit a single right after Bote’s eight-inning play. If Bote hadn’t thrown Merrifield out, he would be in scoring position with one out.

Instead, Rowan Wick took over for Casey Sadler on the mound and struck out the next batter to end the inning.

“It’s those little things in the games that don’t get too much attention,” Bryant continued, “but they definitely do change the momentum of everything out there.”

 

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How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

One of the unnoticed benefits of Javy Báez’s game-ending single in the 11th inning Sunday against the Pirates was that it eliminated a 12th inning that would have belonged to the struggling Craig Kimbrel.

That was David Ross’ next man out of the bullpen, the Cubs manager said Monday.

Instead, we watched the man who would be — and should be — the closer pitch out of the contrived jam (man on second) that is the start of each extra inning this year, and earn the win.

Or did we?

One day after veteran Jeremy Jeffress needed just nine pitches to beat the Pirates in the best of four impressive bullpen appearances, Rowan Wick earned a four-out save in a 2-0 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

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And just like that, the Cubs unveiled a closer-by-committee scheme, if not a closer controversy.

The way the first eight games looked, it's hard to imagine having enough reliable pitchers for a quorum. much less a bona fide committee, among the 14 pitchers who have occupied roster spots in the Cubs’ pen so far.

But until or unless Kimbrel (four walks, two homers, one wild pitch and four outs so far) gets right again, that’s the plan for closing out close games, Ross said after Monday’s game.

“I think every night will be different,” he said. “Every night we’re trying to find the best matchups and who’s throwing well.”

Jeffress is the one guy in the group who has the track record, the unflappable veteran presence and the cold-blooded performance so far this year that included escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in addition to Sunday’s 11th-inning work.

Whether Jeffress was considered unavailable Monday because of high-leverage innings both Saturday and Sunday or Ross liked Wick’s 95-mph fastball/curveball mix against the middle of the Royals order, it was last year’s rookie success story on this night.

“It’s going to be a full team effort down there,” Ross said. “I’m not scared to pull the trigger in a lot of areas with a lot of those guys. They’ve done a really good job of answering the bell here lately and we’ll continue to assess on a daily basis.”

For now it has meant eight consecutive scoreless innings the last two nights against two of the worst teams in baseball for a Cubs bullpen that ranked last in the majors in ERA and several other categories.

That’s not what Ross means when he talks about looking for matchups.

But 10 games into 60-game season, that bullpen almost certainly will continue to be assessed on a daily basis top to bottom.

And with its $43 million closer looking like the weakest link since September, the end of any game with a close lead might be the most intriguing thing to watch with this team for as long as this pandemic season might last.

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