With the biggest series of the season looming later this week, the Cubs still don't know if they'll have two of their top relievers available out of the bullpen.
The position player group is already without its two most important players (Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and the pitching staff has also taken a hit recently with Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) unavailable.
Kimbrel hasn't pitched since serving up a 3-run homer to Christian Yelich on Sept. 1. He later went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but initially hoped to be back after the minimum 10-day stay. The best case scenario now would be Kimbrel returning a week beyond his original target date.
He threw a 16-pitch simulated game/live bullpen Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and the Cubs will see how he feels Wednesday before determining the next step. He could either throw another live bullpen session or, if he feels good, return to the active roster and be available for Thursday's series opener with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.
"He looked really good, actually," Joe Maddon said. "Delivery was good. There was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. Maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy also liked what he saw from Kimbrel, and felt the Cubs closer wasn't trying to overcompensate with his lower half and messing up his mechanics.
As Hottovy stressed, the key will be in Wednesday's evaluation, when Kimbrel is able to come out to the field and play catch and see how his elbow recovers after the live action.
This is already the second injury for Kimbrel, who didn't make his season debut until June 27 and then missed a couple weeks in early August with a knee issue.
When he's been able to pitch, Kimbrel has 13 saves in 15 chances to go along with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. This is a guy who has never posted a season ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his nine-year career.
The swing-and-miss stuff has been there (26 strikeouts in 19 innings), but he's also given up 6 homers so far. Between the free agent process that delayed his start to the season and the pair of injuries, Kimbrel really hasn't been able to settle into a groove in his first season with the Cubs.
"I think the best version of him is still in there," Hottovy said. "I think he'd be the first one to agree with that. But again, an 85-90 percent version of him is as good as anybody. [The key is] getting him to where he feels good, is comfortable and we're able to continue to work on things with him.
"This little stretch here gave us some time to clean up some mechanical things we wanted to do that you may not be able to do midseason when he's throwing three of four days or things like that. We were able to do a lot over this time and hopefully be back into it."
As for Kintzler, he hasn't pitched since last Tuesday in San Diego while dealing with his minor side injury.
He played catch Tuesday and the Cubs are aiming to get him off the mound in a bullpen Wednesday. Once the symptoms subside and he feels like he can get back into his proper mechanics without pain, he'll be ready to return and he's currently holding out hope he'd be ready for Friday's game against St. Louis.
Kintzler thinks he initially hurt his oblique when he fell on the mound throwing a pitch a few weeks ago.
"It just never felt the same after that," he said. "It was day-to-day. Some days were good, some were bad. Some days I was available, some days I wasn't. So it got to the point where I couldn't do that to the team anymore, so we had to shut it down and try to get it right."
The rest of the bullpen has been coming up huge for the Cubs — they have an NL-best 2.32 ERA in September — even without two of the top arms. That's thanks to the emergence of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan, plus veterans David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek.
"Just gotta stay patient," Kintzler said. "San Diego was probably the worst pain I was in. So that wasn't good for anybody. I think the other guys can get the job done if I can't. I just gotta stay patient knowing that if it doesn't feel right, I don't have to rush because the guys are doing a great job. That's helped out a lot mentally for me."
But like Hottovy said, if getting Kimbrel or Kintzler back at only 85 percent would still help the team and with an expanded roster, the Cubs can get away with giving either veteran extra time off after outings.
With the Cubs squaring off against the Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games beginning Thursday, they would certainly like to have Kimbrel and Kintzler available for as many of those contests as they can.
"A lot of it is the communication with how are they feeling? If you rush them back and they pitch one game and then they're down for four days, is that better than them taking two or three extra days at the front end and then being able to regularly pitch like they normally could?" Hottovy said. "That's what we're trying to balance.
"Right now, we have a little bit more flexibility. If we didn't want Kimbrel to throw another live BP, we can ease him into it because we have the Wi(e)cks, we have Phelps and Chatwood and those guys. We have more numbers down there. So you can pitch him one day and know he's gonna have a few days off potentially to have some coverage.
"We balance all that out and the biggest thing is getting the guys comfortable where they know if they go out on the mound, they can execute. That's the No. 1 thing. Once they can do that and they feel strong and they're recovering well, then I think we'll be ready to roll them out."