PITTSBURGH — As Alec Mills and Kyle Hendricks go, so go the Cubs?
That ship probably sailed a long time ago — even before the front office blew up the roster at the trade deadline.
But during a season in which workloads even for veteran pitchers came under heightened scrutiny after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the only current Cubs projected to open next season in the rotation have struggled mightily to finish the season strong.
Not surprisingly, their struggles correspond to a late-season fade for the Cubs that included an 8-6 loss to the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Tuesday night — the Cubs’ seventh loss in a row and 14th in 16 games.
It was the 90th loss for the Cubs — most in a season for them in eight years.
And this time it was Mills’ turn to struggle again, giving up a three-run homer to the fourth batter he faced in the game and eventually loading the bases with nobody out in the sixth before exiting — with all three scoring against the bullpen.
“To be honest with you, I think this has been one of the worst stretches I’ve pitched,” said Mills, who has a 7.82 ERA in five September starts — after producing a 3.73 ERA in his 14 starts this season before that.
“It’s pretty frustrating.”
In his first full season in the majors, Mills has jumped from 62 1/3 innings during the truncated 2020 season to nearly twice that this year (126 2/3, counting a three-start rehab assignment at Triple-A).
That major-league career high in innings is just 16 short of his overall career high in 2018, with one scheduled start left this year.
“This is my first full big-league season in my career, and obviously from what we did last year, it’s been a long one,” Mills said. “At the same time, I feel good every time I go out there. I think I’ve done what I needed to do to prepare and be ready to go every fifth day for a full 162-plus. I wouldn’t say that’s an excuse.”
But if it can be a legitimate issue with every pitcher in baseball this year, including Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks, then it’s at least in play for Mills.
Hendricks has an 8.49 ERA in his past eight starts during what has turned into his worst season of his career — a late-season performance team officials also have suspected might have something to do with the Cubs’ being out of contention for the first time since Hendricks’ debut season.
Cubs manager David Ross was asked again after Tuesday’s game about workloads, this time Mills’ uncharted career territory.
“I don’t think he nor I want to make too many excuses for things,” Ross said. “But he’s ready to go. He’s put the work in. I don’t think that’s playing into it. But I don’t know that.”
It becomes a far more important issue as the Cubs start looking at preparation during the offseason for their in-house rotation candidates and acquiring more via free agency — and, then, of course, into next year, when management says it plans to be competitive.
Until then, Mills is pretty sure of one thing:
“This is just not going to cut it,” he said. “I have to be better than that. And I will be.”