The story of the Cubs rotation has been Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and three days of ducking for so long that one Twitter wag summed up the entire situation Tuesday night with 243 characters to spare:
“Kyle and Yu, and then what do you do?”
Enter Alec Mills on a fall-like night with the wind howling in and temperatures dropping throughout the night.
“On a night like tonight, it’s one of those things, like, ‘Hey, here’s a fastball; see how hard you can hit it,’ “ said the Hendricks-esque right-hander, who pitched aggressively with his fastball early, mixed more changeups and curveballs as he went, and came away with one of the most effective starts this side of Darvish the Cubs have had in weeks.
Did the Cubs find their Game 3 starter for the playoffs?
Nobody’s going there just yet, but it’s not a reach to consider Tuesday night’s performance — after rough outings in Mills’ previous two starts — the first round of auditions for the spot that the Cubs most need to resolve to avoid a very limited run in October.
“I try not to think about that yet,” said Mills, who had been pushed to the bullpen as the sixth starter/swingman when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring training in March, won the fifth-starter job when José Quintana suffered a thumb injury on the eve of summer training camp, and has been in the top four much of the season as Tyler Chatwood has gone on the injured list twice.
“I think guys will sort some things out,” Mills said. “Right now I think we’re struggling a little bit as a rotation outside of [Darvish and Hendricks], but at the same time we know how to pitch. We know how to get outs. I think it’s going to turn around.
“We’ll be ready to go later in the season.”
The Cubs certainly hope they can count on that from decorated playoff veteran Jon Lester, who has struggled more than anyone in the rotation this season — especially as they await the returns from the IL of Quintana (lat) and Chatwood (forearm), who only this week began to play catch as they begin throwing programs.
Meanwhile, Mills said he “diagnosed a few things between starts” and then took advantage of the conditions and his command to turn in his best start in more than a month.
“Getting another great start from a starter goes a long way for us,” said manager David Ross, whose rotation delivered 12 quality starts in the first 16 games — and just seven in the next 25.
Four of the seven in that stretch belonged to Darvish.
In fact, quality from the rotation has been so rare since the Cubs’ 13-3 start that Hendricks’ eight-inning gem Monday and Mills’ start Tuesday mark only the second time since then that the rotation has produced back-to-back quality starts.
That’s how big Mills’ effort was on this night.
And until he or someone else backs it up, the Cubs are facing a rotation issue these final 17 games of the season that still looks like: Darvish and Kyle and pray for a while.
“To go quality starts back-to-back, me and Kyle was big,” said Mills, who watched six of the first 12 batters he faced hit fly balls to the outfield that went nowhere but teammates gloves after hitting the 20-mph winds.
The Cubs have Darvish starting Wednesday.
“I like our chances there,” Mills said. “It’s big.”