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During his pregame press conference Thursday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon shared a laugh about his club’s NFL-esque injury report with one reporter.

“Questionable, probable,” Maddon said with a smile about his team’s long list of injury updates.

As funny as the moment was, there was some truth to it. Ahead of Thursday’s series opener against the Cardinals, the Cubs announced that:

-They activated Craig Kimbrel (elbow) off the 10-day injured list and Addison Russell off the concussion IL
-Cole Hamels will miss his start on Saturday due to left shoulder fatigue

To add to the fun, the Cubs announced 20 minutes before Thursday’s game that Anthony Rizzo was returning to the starting lineup just four days after badly spraining his right ankle.

Got all that?

While the Rizzo announcement was shocking, the Hamels news came as a surprise. The 35-year-old has struggled since returning from an oblique strain on Aug. 3, holding a 6.39 ERA in his last nine starts. He’s failed to pitch five innings in five of those games, including the last three.

Maddon didn’t express terrible concern over Hamels missing this weekend’s start, though he pointed out how the team has to be careful with injuries this time of year, as an extended absence could be the end of one’s season.

“Eh, I shouldn’t say heavily concerned, but anytime a guy like that says it’s bothering him a bit, you have to absolutely believe it,” Maddon said. “Especially at this time of the year, how much he loves to compete and play right now.

 

“There’s always some concern with that. We’ll just take his word and what the doctors have to say and then try and get him back as quickly as possible.

“If Cole says he’s hurting, he’s hurting, man.”

The Cubs expect Hamels to start next week, but whether that comes against the Pirates or the Cardinals is to be determined. Point being, the Cubs want to make sure Hamels is good to go before throwing him into the fold.

“I don’t know yet. I had a great conversation with him,” Maddon said. “This guy is so straight forward, pragmatic and honest. Let’s just continue to work with it daily and then see where it takes us.”

Maddon also mentioned how Hamels not starting this weekend has some positive repercussions. Not only does it give him extra rest, but the same can be said about Jose Quintana, who originally was slated to pitch Friday but will now start Saturday. Alec Mills – who has quietly been pitching well – will now start on Friday. Starting Mills also means Tyler Chatwood can stay in the hybrid relief role he has succeed in lately.

“Combined with the fact that Cole’s not doing that well, Alec has been pitching well and it gives Q one extra day," Maddon said. "All those things are in a way positive that we can fit it in this way. Having Alec throwing as well as he has to fit in there and not have to take Chatwood out of the role that we’ve got him in right now is also very helpful.

"You saw what Tyler did last night. Part of that little quick dab in and out last night is so that we can possibly use him more often. In a weird way, having this great depth that’s able to cover these particular maladies, I think we’re covered."

Kimbrel didn’t go on a rehab assignment, as the seasons of the Cubs minor league affiliates all have concluded. However, like Hamels, Kimbrel knows his body best and therefore, Maddon trusted that his closer was ready to return.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat.

“He feels really good about himself, and he knows better than anybody how good he feels. I’m eager about it.”

Kimbrel returns to a Cubs bullpen that stepped up big time in his absence. Entering Thursday, the Cubs ranked No. 1 in MLB with a 2.35 ERA by relievers in September. Kimbrel’s numbers this season aren’t eye-popping – 21 games, 5.68 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 13-of-15 in save opportunities – but his impact on the Cubs bullpen goes beyond numbers.

Rather than go with a committee approach, Kimbrel gives the Cubs a bonafide closing option. In turn, the likes of Steve Cishek, Rowan Wick, Chatwood and Brandon Kintzler – who is nearing a return and will throw a bullpen session Thursday or Friday – can pitch earlier in games, lengthening the Cubs bullpen.

 

“When that happens, that permits us to move it back…Chatwood becomes available earlier, Rowan becomes available earlier. They all become available earlier, which lengthens the whole thing out.

“But when you have that one guy at the end that you know is at the end, all of a sudden, these first eight innings [are[ wide open, man. Just go for it.

With the season winding down, it’s all hands on deck for the Cubs. With a playoff spot still in reach, go for it they shall.

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