It was a little easier to answer the 9th inning question when Brandon Morrow hit the disabled list, but now that Pedro Strop is done for the rest of the regular season, things get a little murkier.
"We definitely have guys that are capable," Joe Maddon said prior to Friday's game. "[Justin] Wilson’s done it, [Steve] Cishek’s done it, [Jesse] Chavez has already done it with us. I think Carl [Edwards] is still eligible and capable to do those kind of things."
Prior to his mid-July injury, Morrow had notched 22 saves, and then Strop had 13 of his own. Strop was on his way to a nearly three inning save when he tweaked his left hamstring on Thursday.
After that, the pitchers Maddon named do all come with some degree of closing experience.
Wilson has 14 in his career, and all but one of those came last season before he was traded to the Cubs from Detroit. At the time, he showed potential to continue that task when spelling Wade Davis and then possibly to be considered for the closer's role in 2018, but he walked far too many batters in the second half of 2017 to be trusted with any high-leverage innings, whenever they came.
That said, Wilson has been something of a better pitcher this year, dropping his WHIP to 1.37 from the disastrous 2.09 he had for the Cubs last season. That's still high, but he was holding that number below 1.00 while he was with the Tigers in 2017, so the potential is there. Thanks to an upper 90s fastball and a 30% strikeout rate, he can certainly close games if he can keep runners off of the bases.
With the Marlins, Cishek was their go-to 9th inning guy in 2013 and 2014, and he closed for the Mariners in 2016. In all, Cishek has 124 career saves. He has closed for the Cubs three times this season, but he has also logged 65.2 innings already, so he might be best saved for other duties.
If called upon though, Cishek said he is ready, along with the rest of the bullpen.
"A lot of us have pitched in the 9th inning before," Cishek said. "I’m always going to be ready from the 6th inning on. Whenever my name gets called, I’m going in, and that’s the approach I think all the guys have taken throughout the course of the year."
That flexible attitude is sort of the mantra of the bullpen this year. Chavez, who has picked up three saves for the Cubs since joining the team in late July, echoed Cishek's thoughts.
"That’s a quality of the bullpen we have, the group we have. The type of personalities we have down there that aren’t going to fret in situations they’re put into," Chavez said. "They’re going to go out there and treat it like it was a normal situation."
To the observer, it would seem that handling the 9th inning couldn't be as simple as just treating it like any other inning. The pressure of a close division race, the energy of the crowd amplify these moments more than most ballparks.
But, the Cubs relievers say, the roar of Wrigley actually helps.
"It actually keeps you calm a little bit," Brandon Kintzler said. "With this stadium here, they’re up in the 6th inning and it feels like the 9th inning."
Kintzler closed games in 2016 and 2017 for the Twins and Nationals. He has yet to pitch in that situation for the Cubs this year, but he fits in with the mindset of the rest of the bullpen.
"From my experience closing you just have to you can’t treat it as any bigger what it is. Obviously it’s the last out, but the reality is it’s just another inning," Kintzler said. "You just try to be the closer of your own inning, and just treat it like that and do what you do and don’t make it bigger than what it is."
Randy Rosario picked up the last inning Thursday when Strop got hurt, but it is likely that Maddon will rely on his pitchers with greater experience in the 9th inning. Right now, it appears as though Morrow could return later next week, but a lot of that will depend on how well his sim game goes on Saturday.
In the meantime, Cishek and others will have to step up, but even with the energy and pressure of the last three outs, they're ready for it.
"If anything, at this point in the season, it’s an encouragement when you go out there and fans are behind you screaming down the opposing team’s throat. It just gets you fired up, gives you the extra gear," Cishek said. "We rely a lot more on the fans than they think. The positive atmosphere in this stadium is something that a lot of stadiums don’t have, and we feed off of that. If you’re able to slow it down and take in that energy and enjoy it, you just go out there and make it happen."
Cishek added that the bullpen has been coming in and covering high-leverage innings all year, so there's no room now for gloom and doom.
"If we dwell on the injuries, that doesn’t really create a positive atmosphere," Cishek said. "For us, it stinks that it happened, but we still have a job to do. Stropy wouldn’t expect anything less from us."