WASHINGTON — Rafael Ortega made all the noise for the Cubs on Sunday — getting especially loud three times with home runs.
But the most important things worth watching when it comes to the next step for the reeling, rebuilding Cubs — and how big and fast that step might be — happened on the mound.
This is where those who are squeamish or still affected by the mass tradeoff of the team’s beloved championship core on Friday might want to stop reading and skip ahead to spring training.
Because if Sunday offered a glimpse of anything that’s around the next corner for the Cubs it’s that this process won’t be easy, probably not pain-free and definitely not guaranteed to result in a quick return to the postseason.
Three pitchers currently in the middle of the Cubs’ plans for the next wave worked Sunday, including two potential pieces for the back end of the rotation: hard-throwing prospect Manny Rodriguez and second-year right-hander Codi Heuer, who was acquired Friday from the White Sox in the Craig Kimbrel trade.
Heuer pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a 5-5 game, just one day after inheriting a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in his Cubs debut and escaping with only one run allowed.
“I see an opportunity to take a big role in this team in the bullpen,” said Heuer, who called it “tough” to leave a “super tight” Sox team but who might wind up getting a few chances for saves by the time the season is done and the Cubs start firming up some thoughts on long-term plans.
Rodriguez, whose major-league debut came with two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 inning, showed off his 100-mph arm again Sunday — and showed how quickly a big-league hitter can send it back out even faster if the pitch isn’t located.
Lefty-hitting Yadi Hernandez hit Rodriguez’s fifth pitch of the ninth into the seats in left for the game-winner Sunday.
Call it the non-linear nature of talent development during a rebuild. At least that’s what Theo Epstein used to call it before he handed off the Cubs’ baseball ops to Jed Hoyer last fall just in time for the hardest decisions the front office would have to make in either’s career as an executive.
Which brings Sunday’s observations to Adbert Alzolay, the promising right-hander who made his 25th career big-league start, got beat around by left-handed hitters again and whose final two months of this season loom disproportionately large for the Cubs in this rebuilding process.
The Cubs have one starting pitcher fit to start a playoff game locked into their plans beyond this year: Kyle Hendricks. Alzolay and Alec Mills are the only other starters on the team assured of a chance to open next season in the rotation (with prospects rookies Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson on deck for late season auditions).
That means that when you start evaluating what the Cubs have in-house against the timeline for competing anytime soon, it starts to depend a lot on whether Alzolay develops into a version of the difference maker he was for seven starts (2.95 ERA) leading up a blister injury in June or continues to struggle like he has in eight starts since returning from the IL (0-6, 5.98).
Fastball command? Development of his slider? Better approach against lefties?
The only thing that matters is whether he can be counted on to get more than 15 outs effectively every fifth day. And that’s just to hold down a middle to back-end spot in the rotation.
And if he can’t get lefty hitters out, he’s not a starting pitcher at all, by definition.
Which would leave yet another rotation spot to fill for the Cubs, who already are facing the tall task of rebuilding the front end of a potential playoff rotation.
Talk about urgency.
“Urgency’s probably not the term that I would use,” Ross said.
OK, don’t talk about urgency.
But it’s hard to overstate the importance of these final two months of the season for the Cubs and their pitching plans for the timeline of a rebuild Hoyer won’t call a rebuild.
Alzolay, 26, seems to understand it as he tries again to figure out an answer for his lefties problem and keeps working on better command and break since the blister.
“These two months are going to be really, really good to keep working on that,” he said, “and to keep building for 2022.”
And Ross knows where any competitive turning point for the next Cubs wave will start, even if urgency isn’t the word of the day for a potential key to their next good rotation.
“Today was a good challenge, a good test. He’s got to continue to get better,” Ross said of Alzolay and his work against the Nationals’ lefties.
“But I don’t think that’s indicative of his future at all,” Ross said. “I think he’s a big part of what we need to have success here. We need starting pitching.”