Steve Cishek

Cubs battle, but Tuesday's brutal loss to Padres a missed opportunity to gain ground in postseason standings

Cubs battle, but Tuesday's brutal loss to Padres a missed opportunity to gain ground in postseason standings

As the clock ticks down on the 2019 regular season, the only way to view Tuesday is as a missed opportunity for the Cubs.

With the Cardinals losing to the Rockies and the Nationals falling to the Twins, the Cubs had a golden chance to gain ground in the National League postseason standings. A win would've put them three games behind St. Louis for first place in the NL Central and 1.5 behind Washington for the top NL Wild Card spot.

Instead, the Cubs suffered a brutal 9-8 walk-off loss, one that you can't help but feel slipped right through their fingers. To add insult to injury, the Padres scored the victory by recording three straight walks off Steve Cishek in the 10th inning, the final one coming on four pitches.

Woof.

The anticlimactic ending was disappointing in its own right, but especially when considering what the offense did on Tuesday. Despite going down 6-2 and 8-5 at various points in the game, the Cubs fought back, eventually tying the game at 8-apiece in the eighth inning. 

Seeing the Cubs claw their way back into the game should be viewed positively despite the loss. So should the individual performances of Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward, two players who have struggled over the last month or so.

Entering Tuesday, Bryant held a .241/.328/.414 slash line since Aug. 1, hitting just five home runs over that stretch (none since Aug. 21). Heyward's line over that same stretch is even more glaring: .170/.295/.330. The duo led the charge Tuesday, though, as both hit a pair of home runs while walking once and twice, respectively.

So, if you're looking for positives, Bryant and Heyward are a great place to start. The Cubs won't be able to start a full-strength lineup until October, at the earliest, as Javier Báez is out the rest of the regular season due to a hairline fracture in his left thumb.

Nevertheless, they still have a roster capable of being formidable offensively, as evidenced by Monday's 10-run outing and their most-recent showing. This is contingent on Bryant being healthy, of course, which he certainly looked Tuesday, his first game since receiving a cortisone shot in his balky right knee on Sunday.

Ultimately, however, the Cubs finished the night in the same position as they started in, if not a worse one. The Brewers took down the Marlins 4-3, which, combined with the Cubs' loss, puts Milwaukee a game behind the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot. For what it's worth, the Brewers have an uphill battle to climb, as they'll be without Christian Yelich (fractured right kneecap) for the rest of the season.

At this point in the season, though, moral victories are worth little to nothing. With 18 games left in the regular season, every game and win means more than prior to it, especially for teams in a heated postseason race.

The Cubs still have seven games against the Cardinals in their back pocket, meaning that if they can keep their divisional deficit in a similar position as it is currently, they'll have a chance to usurp St. Louis. This task only becomes more difficult by the day, though, when opportunities like Tuesday's aren't taken advantage of.

2019 has featured plenty of heartbreaking losses for the Cubs. Considering the chance they had Tuesday, the latest should be right up there amongst the rest.

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Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form

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USA TODAY

Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form

MILWAUKEE — It's still a strange sight watching the Cubs cycle through relievers out of the bullpen in close games without Pedro Strop as a central part of that group.

Saturday night, Joe Maddon called on six different relievers — Kyle Ryan, Steve Cishek, David Phelps, Derek Holland, Rowan Wick and Brandon Kintzler. Yet even with closer Craig Kimbrel on the injured list (right elbow inflammation), Strop's number still wasn't called and clearly isn't in Maddon's circle of trust at the moment.

It's understandable why, as Strop carries a 5.40 ERA and 1.34 WHIP on the season with 6 blown saves.

After starting the year looking like his usual self (2.53 ERA) and serving as the team's closer, Strop has a 6.94 ERA in 30 games since May 4. That includes an outing on May 6 when he gave up 3 runs and took a blown save and a loss against the Marlins and went on the shelf a day later with a hamstring injury. 

The 34-year-old also missed a couple weeks with a neck injury and generally has struggled to maintain his velocity throughout the season.

"Yeah, it's been a hard year for me on and off because of injuries and stuff," Strop said. "It's been a while where I've felt really good now and I feel healthy. I was off a little bit mechanics-wise, but right now, I feel pretty good and my last couple outings have been where I want to be. 

"Hopefully I get a chance and an opportunity to get in the game so I can pitch the way I used to pitch so they can see and say, 'OK, he's ready to be in high-leverage situations again.' Hopefully I get the chance."

With the ascension of other guys in the bullpen (Wick and Ryan, especially) and Kintzler's resurgent season, the Cubs bullpen has been able to get by without Strop pitching in high-leverage spots for the most part.

But they can use all the help they can get down the stretch and this is a guy who has 119 holds and 29 saves over his seven seasons with the Cubs, serving as a linchpin in this bullpen for the better part of the last decade.

Prior to 2019, Strop had never finished a season with an ERA above 2.91 and these were his numbers across the board as a Cub before this difficult season:

2.63 ERA
1.02 WHIP
10.2 K/9
5.7 H/9

That's an elite reliever who accounted for 331.1 innings in that span. 

He also pitched through some extreme pain in the NL Wild-Card Game last October in a gutsy performance coming off a bad hamstring injury.

It just hasn't been the same this season, but Strop feels close to where he wants to be — "we're right on the cusp," he said.

Strop allowed an unearned run in Friday's game and Maddon said that was the best he's seen the veteran reliever look in a little while. He followed that with a scoreless eighth inning in Sunday's loss, erasing a one-out walk with a double play.

"The slider's gotten sharper, probably a tick up in velocity also," Maddon said. "Stroppy just wants to play. He's so competitive, but he's also very pragmatic — he knows where it's at right now compared to where some of the other guys have been pitching. But if this guy finds it moving down the stretch run, it could be very valuable. 

"His work's been great. It's been outstanding. It's trending in the right direction for him. Right now, there's so many guys that are doing a nice body of work there, so we just gotta work him back into it."

Strop is in the last year of his contract with the Cubs and has been lauded as an integral piece of the clubhouse chemistry and a leader in the bullpen over his years in Chicago.

Even throughout a difficult season, he's still maintained his jovial personality.

"There's too many games in one season to mourn over one thing, whether it be injury or a bad outing or somebody else's injury or bad outing," Ryan said. "[Having a guy like that] raises your clubhouse morale and team morale and on-field morale. A smile is very contagious and Stroppy's always smiling."

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Cubs see another reliever go down as Steve Cishek hits the injured list

Cubs see another reliever go down as Steve Cishek hits the injured list

The Cubs bullpen has seen better days.

Saturday, the Cubs placed right-hander Steve Cishek on the 10-day injured list with right hip inflammation. In a corresponding move, the team recalled Dillon Maples from Triple-A Iowa.

Cishek was one of Joe Maddon’s most reliable relievers before the All-Star break, as the 33-year-old posted a 2.75 ERA in 40 appearances. He’s had a tough going over the last three weeks or so, allowing runs in four of his last eight appearances. He holds a 10.50 ERA over that span, surrendering 11 hits — three of which have left the ballpark.

Many might attribute Cishek’s struggles to his usage, which isn’t the most far-fetched argument. A year after leading the Cubs in appearances with 80, Cishek’s 54 appearances this season is No. 1 on the team. In fact, he’s appeared in 14 of the Cubs 26 games post-All-Star break, tops on the team.

Perhaps a short stint on the injured list could bode well for Cishek, allowing him to reset and get a bit of a breather. However, his injury comes at a bad time for the Cubs bullpen, as Cishek is the fourth Cubs reliever to hit the shelf this week alone.

Closer Craig Kimbrel landed on the 10-day injured list on Monday with right knee inflammation, with the reliable Brandon Kintzler joining him there on Tuesday with right pec inflammation. Plus, the Cubs placed lefty Kyle Ryan on the bereavement list Friday, recalling Alec Mills in his place. According to MLB rules, Ryan has to be away from the team for a minimum of three games, but he could be out upwards of seven.

Fortunately for the Cubs, each of Kimbrel, Kintzler and Ryan could be back soon. 

Kimbrel initially said that he only planned to miss the minimum 10 days while on the injured list, which would put him in line to be activated on Thursday. The Cubs certainly won't rush him back, though, as they need him to be healthy while they battle for a postseason spot over the next two months. 

In the meantime, the Cubs have to figure out who will close games while the aforementioned relievers rehab. Maddon said that it's "committee time" after Kimbrel landed on the injured list, but Cishek was likely to get the first crack at a save opportunity. Without him, who pitches in the ninth inning is more unclear than ever, with Pedro Strop's recent struggles only clouding things further.

Be that as it may, the Cubs bullpen looks something like this, as things currently stand:

Pedro Strop
Tyler Chatwood
Rowan Wick
Derek Holland
David Phelps
Duane Underwood Jr.
Alec Mills
Dillon Maples

Maples is making his fourth stint with the Cubs this season. The 27-year-old holds a 5.63 ERA in 10 big league appearances, though he's struck out 13 batters in eight innings. He has walked 10 batters over that stretch, however.

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