Alec Mills

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs just got swept by the last-place, 91-loss Pirates and haven't "flown the W" since Sept. 16.

Thursday marked the very first game in the Joe Maddon era that had zero playoff implications for the Cubs. It was also the first such experience for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. in the big leagues.

So it's understandable if Cubs fans aren't feeling too "glass half full" right about now. 

But things haven't been all bad during September. Zooming out and looking big picture, there are some clear positives to take away from what was otherwise a disastrous month for the Cubs.

Yu Darvish

Darvish's season is done, with the Cubs announcing Thursday they're shutting down the 33-year-old right-hander. He finishes 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 229 strikeouts on the year — an enormous bounceback season in his second season in Chicago.

After accounting for just 40 innings across 8 starts in his first year of a $126 million contract, he pitched 178.2 innings in 31 starts this season. 

Darvish will go down as one of the Cubs' MVPs of the season with a huge second half that included a 2.39 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in September with 46 strikeouts against only 4 walks. That's especially impressive considering he began the month with a forearm issue.

All the "new year, new Yu" talk about Darvish in spring training came to fruition and he will head into the offseason and 2020 on a high note. That's huge for a team that will be facing some big decisions on the pitching staff.

Nico Hoerner

Once a wrist injury cost him two months of the season, nobody expected the Cubs' top prospect up in the big leagues in 2019. But injuries to Javy Baez and Russell prompted the promotion and the rookie has impressed in a huge way. 

Hoerner has hit .288 with a .789 OPS and his elite contact skills have transferred from the minors to the big leagues. It sure looks like he's going to play a big part on the 2020 roster — potentially even on Opening Day.

"You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico," Maddon said. "And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball. He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that."

Hoerner has had some hiccups at shortstop in the big leagues, but he has also shown he can clearly be valuable insurance to Javy Baez there next season. He played a lot of second base and center field in the minors and Maddon said he will roll Hoerner out in those roles over the final series in St. Louis.

Mix that all with his composure, competitive nature and team-focused mindset and it looks like the Cubs have found a core piece of the team moving forward.

Future pitching options

The 2020 bullpen is emerging as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Cubs this winter and the Wi(e)cks are a big reason why. 

Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck each pitched 9.2 innings in September and in those outings combined for 26 strikeouts while allowing just 6 hits and 3 earned runs. 

Wick had already emerged as a high-leverage reliever earlier in the season, but with injuries to Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler, he ascended as Maddon's most trusted bullpen arm in the season's final month. Wieck quickly earned high-leverage opportunities, as well, and not only as a situational lefty. 

Both guys figure to play key roles for the 2020 team.

Beyond that, Alec Mills also impressed in his 4 appearances (0.84 ERA) this month, including a spot start last week against the Cardinals where he tossed 4.2 shutout innings. He will start against St. Louis again Friday and enters the winter in the swingman mix on next season's pitching staff.

Tyler Chatwood is firmly in that swingman mix, if not the frontrunner for the Cubs' fifth starter spot. Including a spot start and six relief appearances in September, Chatwood posted a 1.38 ERA in September to go along with a 0.85 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. That lowers his season ERA to 3.76 in his resurgent campaign. 

Chatwood has been dealing with a mild shoulder injury, so the Cubs don't know yet if he will pitch again this season.

On more of a personal level, the Cubs also had the opportunity to give Danny Hultzen his first MLB experience and potentially send Pedro Strop out on a good note. 

Hultzen, 29, was the second overall pick back in 2011 and faced a tough road to the big leagues after a variety of injuries. His six games haven't been perfect (4 hits allowed, 2 walks, 1 hit-batter and he also committed an error), but he has yet to give up a run and has 5 strikeouts in 3.1 innings since his debut on Sept. 8.

If this is the end of the line for the 34-year-old Strop in a Cubs uniform, he'll go down as one of the best relievers in franchise history. He's a free agent after this season and his 2019 was marred by injury and struggles on the mound (4.99 ERA). But he has a 1.29 ERA in September and he was — fittingly — the last Cub to throw at pitch at Wrigley this season.

Short-term injuries

This month's injuries will be near the top of reasons why this 2019 season won't end in any playoffs for the Cubs. But the good news is none of the injuries figure to impact the players for 2020 or beyond.

Kimbrel's elbow inflammation was minor and he was at least hitting 96 and 97 mph on the gun during his difficult return to the mound against the Cardinals last weekend. 

Anthony Rizzo's nasty-looking sprained ankle somehow healed enough in three days to allow him to heroically suit up against the Cardinals, but now that the Cubs are officially eliminated, they won't risk any further injury by playing him. The same goes for Bryant, who felt very fortunate he didn't suffer a bad knee injury or anything else when he slipped on first base Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Baez's fractured thumb did not require surgery and he's been able to pinch-hit once and run the bases a few times over the last week, even if he hasn't been well enough to play the field. 

Zobrist's return

It feels like so long ago, but this month actually began with the return of Ben Zobrist to the active roster after four months tending to his family situation.

It was clear the Cubs missed him both as a player and as a person and the fans were ecstatic to have their 2016 World Series MVP back. As far as production on the field, the 38-year-old Zobrist looked like he hadn't missed any time, hitting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage and .787 OPS. 

With his contract up after this season, it was good to see him get back on the field and have an opportunity to potentially end his career in Chicago on a high note instead of on personal leave. 

Schwarber keeps mashing

Schwarber continues to rake in the second half of the season and enters the weekend series with a .341 batting average and 1.086 OPS in 94 September plate appearances. He also leads the team in RBI for the month (18) and looks to have taken a step forward as an overall run producer since the All-Star Break. 

After getting the day off Thursday, Schwarber will rejoin the starting lineup in St. Louis and a huge series could net him 40 homers and 100 RBI for the season (he's currently at 37 and 91, respectively). 

With the way he's finished the season, he's silenced a lot of doubters and looks to be key piece for this team in 2020 and beyond.

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Someone capable of mixing pitches and having success without a high-velocity fastball delivered a stellar start for the Cubs on Friday. Sound familiar?

No, it wasn’t Kyle Hendricks’ turn in the rotation – though he did throw an 81-pitch, complete game shutout against St. Louis back in May. Rather, it was Alec Mills who stymied the Cardinals offense this time around.

Mills was thrust into action in place of Cole Hamels, whose turn in the rotation was skipped due to left shoulder fatigue. Despite being pressed into action, the 27-year-old Mills delivered, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six.

“He was outstanding. He gave us everything we needed,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game, a 2-1 Cubs loss – their fourth-straight. “[He] pitched really that well, like we’ve been talking about the whole time.

“He really demonstrated what he’s made out of.”

Mills has been emerging as a quite a contributor for the Cubs as of late. He now holds a 0.84 ERA over his last four outings, which also includes two scoreless innings against the Reds on Tuesday.

Friday, he looked Hendricks-esque, making up for a lack of fastball velocity – he averaged 89.9 mph with his four-seamer – with a stellar slow curveball and sweeping slider. His curveball averaged 67.7 mph, even touching 65 mph at times.

Such fastball velocity might seem more hittable than something in the upper 90s. However, as opposing teams have seen time and time again with Hendricks, 89 looks a lot different when blended in with effective breaking pitches.

“I think every at-bat, I’m trying to be something different, cause I don’t have the stuff to just say ‘Here you go, here’s what it is,’” Mills said postgame. “If I can be something that keeps them off balance every at-bat, it’s what I want to do.”

Mills got four called strikes and four swinging strikes, respectively, with his curveball on Friday. None of those were for strike three, but when the Cardinals actually put Mills’ curve in play, they went 0-for-4.

“It’s one of those things where I feel like I can throw it for a strike at any point,” he said postgame about the pitch. “It’s something I can lean on when I need it, so it’s nice.”

Despite his personal success, Mills kept things in perspective after the game. Not only does Friday’s loss drop the Cubs to five games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central, but also 1.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. This is pending the outcome of Friday night’s Brewers-Pirates, though.

“It’s always nice to throw well, but at the end of the day, a win is all that matters at this point,” he said. “Obviously a lot of guys are upset, but it’s one of those things where it’s definitely not over.

“I don’t think there will be an ounce of quit in here. We’re just going to come tomorrow ready to play and go for a win.”

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Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen

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USA TODAY

Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen

Alec Mills is about as under-the-radar as you can be as a Cubs player these days.

He's never been a top prospect, he doesn't throw hard (his fastball has been clocked at just 89.3 mph this season), and his demeanor on and off the mound is far from flashy.

Yet he continues to get outs in a quiet, efficient manner.

Sound like anybody else you know?

Joe Maddon has said several times over the past couple years that Mills reminds him of Kyle Hendricks and 14 games into Mills' Cubs career, it's hard to argue with that.

Over the last week, the 27-year-old right-hander has picked up his first MLB win (Monday) and save (Friday) while emerging as another solid piece out of the Cubs' September bullpen that has been without Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler of late.

The Cubs eventually won Monday night's game 8-2, but Mills was called on to protect a 3-2 game in the fifth and sixth innings and bridged the gap to Rowan Wick by permitting only a single in the two frames.

"What he did [Monday], he gave the game form again," Maddon said. "Really good pitches and a variety of pitches to both lefties and righties. Give the guy credit, man. Every time he shows up, he does something good for us. And does it in a very quiet, professional manner. He's outstanding."

Like Maddon said, Mills has quietly had a lot of success in the big leagues. In each of the last two seasons, he's made five relief appearances and two starts and has combined for 44.1 innings in a Cubs uniform with a 3.65 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.2 K/9. 

Not bad for a guy who rides the Chicago-to-Iowa shuttle as much as any other arm.

"It's confidence, being here every day," Mills said. "The more you come here, the more normal it is. I think when you're going down and coming up from the minors, it's still kind of a shock to be in here, experience these things and be in this environment. But the more you're here, the more normal it gets. Just trying to settle in and be you."

Who knows how much Mills will pitch over the final week-and-a-half of the regular season or what situations he will be tasked with. But he's clearly earning the trust of Maddon and his teammates by answering the bell whenever his name is called.

As for his similarities to Hendricks, Mills is happy to hear his name mentioned in the same light as the 2016 NL ERA champ.

"I definitely look at him and try to pick things up," Mills said. "Every time he throws a bullpen, I'm in there watching. We've talked before. We are similar in that nature, but we are also quite different the way we grip pitches, throw pitches, stuff like that. As far as mindset, we've talked and stuff. 

"It's the highest of compliments for me. That's a guy who's shown that just by being yourself and pitching the way you know how, you can be very successful."

 

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