Steve Cishek

Cubs reliever Steve Cishek carted off the field with bizarre pregame injury

Cubs reliever Steve Cishek carted off the field with bizarre pregame injury

Aiming to avoid a sweep in Colorado and halting a five-game road losing streak, the Cubs were dealt a big blow to the team before they even began the game Wednesday afternoon.

Steve Cishek was carted off the field during pregame warm-ups as he took a ball off the leg while playing catch with teammate Brandon Kintzler.

He had to be helped to a medical cart:

The Cubs provided an update shortly after, saying Cishek got hit on the inside of his right knee and they're calling it a bruise:

It's a freak injury and obviously bad news for a Cubs team that has been searching for bullpen consistency all season. But it doesn't appear to be as scary as it initially looked. Cishek told Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales after the game that he's only expected to miss a day or two:

The Cubs just signed Craig Kimbrel last week, but the closer is still expected to need a couple weeks to get up to speed after sitting out spring training and the first two months of the season.

Cishek has been one of the Cubs' only reliable relievers all year, posting a 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 6 saves and 4 holds. He leads the team in appearances once again this season after pitching in nearly half the Cubs' games (80) a season ago.

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Cubs rotation has given the bullpen a heck of an assist lately

Cubs rotation has given the bullpen a heck of an assist lately

Even before the Cubs bullpen gets a major boost when Craig Kimbrel joins the mix in a couple weeks, Pedro Strop and Co. have received another shot in the arm.

Since Cole Hamels lasted just four innings on Memorial Day in Houston, the Cubs bullpen has only been relied upon to account for 29 innings. That's the lowest total in Major League Baseball and also includes an extra-inning game and a three-hour rain delay that knocked starter Jose Quintana out after four innings in St. Louis two weekends ago.

In a 13-game span, relievers have only needed to cover about two innings a game, as Cubs starters have been pitching into the seventh inning on an everyday basis.

That's normally a good recipe for success, but it didn't work out that way for the Cubs Monday night in Colorado in a 6-5 loss. Yu Darvish worked around one rough inning to toss six frames again, but Mike Montgomery and Steve Cishek each gave up a run in the late innings.

It was only the Cubs' second loss in their last eight games, as they've been leaning heavily on their rotation.

"When you get those kinds of performances, then you can actually use the bullpen the way you want to," Joe Maddon said. "You go theoretically perfect before the game and then after that, when the game's in progress and it's not going as you would like it to, then all of a sudden you start going to Plan B and C.

"So when the starters are able to do that, that's what makes for a good bullpen — really good starting pitching makes for a really good bullpen."

During that time, no Cubs reliever has been taxed. Carl Edwards Jr. is the only pitcher who has appeared in half those games and leads the relief corps with 5.1 innings. Nobody else has thrown more than 5 innings in those 12 contests.

Maddon has only had to call on a reliever to throw on back-to-back days on four occasions in the two weeks — once by Edwards, once by Cishek and twice by Kyle Ryan.

Just as important: The Cubs needed a reliever to get more than three outs just three times in the same stretch (and two of those instances were Tyler Chatwood and Edwards eating up innings after the rain delay in St. Louis).

Again, this is all before Kimbrel arrives and truly lengthens the bullpen in all the ways the Cubs have mentioned. If everybody remains healthy, when Kimbrel joins the club and pushes Strop back into a setup role, it would increase Maddon's circle of trust and ensures the Cubs won't have to heap too much on one guy's plate.

Over the last two seasons, the Cubs bullpen has faded down the stretch — at exactly the time relievers become most important. They're hoping that doesn't happen again this fall.

The Cubs still ended up leading the National League in ERA last season, but by the time Game 163 and the Wild-Card Game rolled around, Jesse Chavez was the team's only healthy and trusted reliever. Strop and Brandon Morrow were hurt (though Strop pitched through the pain in the playoff game), Edwards had struggled for more than a month before he was deemed inactive for the Wild-Card game with a forearm issue and Cishek seemed to run into a wall in early September as he set new career highs in appearances and innings pitched.

Thanks in large part to this current stretch, Cubs relievers have had a manageable workload so far this season. Cishek and Ryan are the clubhouse leaders in appearances, but they're only on pace for 71 games and Maddon has backed off Cishek since he was asked to get a seven-out save May 19 in Washington D.C.

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What is Craig Kimbrel's timeline for joining Cubs?

What is Craig Kimbrel's timeline for joining Cubs?

The Cubs have done it — they've appeased every fan who has asked for them to sign Craig Kimbrel to bolster the team's bullpen.

But now when can fans see Kimbrel suiting up in Cubbie blue, dangling his arm in an upside down "W" right before the crowd flies the "W"?

There is no surefire answer right now, but the expectation is it will take at least three weeks for Kimbrel to get up to speed to join the big-league bullpen.

That's the standard time veteran relievers take in spring training to get ramped up for the season and the Cubs have no interest in rushing Kimbrel or jumping the gun just to get immediate help in the bullpen.

"First, I'd like to find out exactly what he's been doing," Joe Maddon said before Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Rockies. "It's different because a guy like himself, I would imagine he's really been throwing a lot. Maybe he's been on a particular schedule. I don't know if he's throwing to hitters wherever he's located. 

"The first thing you do is find that part of it out. And then after that, I think you can develop the length of whatever you want to do and then set up the program regarding throw — how many days off — throw and then possibly build it up to like two in a row, something like that. But I don't know the answer. 

"A three-week window normally sounds about right. Think about relief pitchers in spring training — we normally don't start them until the first week of March and then you're ready by April. Conventionally, it would be like that kind of a window. But you gotta talk to the guy first and see what he's been doing."

If, say, Kimbrel passed the physical and was able to get out to a Cubs minor-league affiliate and throw in a game on Saturday, that would put the three-week mark at June 29. And that's if everything goes smoothly.

So it would be surprising if we see Kimbrel pitching out of the Cubs bullpen anytime before July 1.

As a window into the Cubs' line of thinking on this, look at the Pedro Strop situation last month. Strop was returning from a hamstring injury and insisted he would be ready to rejoin the team without a rehab assignment. But the Cubs sent him to Triple-A Iowa anyways and he actually made three separate appearances there before coming back up to the majors.

The reason for that was simple — the Cubs wanted to ensure Strop was 100 percent before returning and they wanted to see how his body and hamstring responded in the days after appearances. They know they're going to need to lean heavily on Strop in September and October and they don't want to push him now, in late-May/early-June,  and risk reinjury.

The same big-picture thinking applies to Kimbrel, who hasn't thrown in a game since Oct. 27 — Game 4 of the World Series.

"He's an elite talent. I'm sure he's been throwing, throwing live [bullpens], but it's not the same unless you get in the game," veteran reliever Steve Cishek said. "I'm assuming he's gonna have a couple weeks to ramp up and get his arm where it needs to be. In that time, we're just gonna continue to hold down the fort like we've been doing. When he gets here, definitely a big added bonus."

Cishek and other Cubs veteran relievers have acknowledged that it takes about three weeks to get up to speed in spring training. 

So that's the baseline the Cubs are going to try to establish for Kimbrel, who hasn't pitched competitively in a game in seven months. But that's still something they have to discuss with the 31-year-old closer and he can shed more light on what he's been doing during the first couple months of the MLB season.

But at the very least, the Cubs are planning on having Kimbrel ready to go for the entire second half of the season and — they hope — in the playoffs, as well. They also feel there could be a hidden benefit in that Kimbrel may well be fresh come September and October.

There's plenty of reason to take things slow, even amidst a hotly contested NL Central race (the Cubs and Brewers are tied atop the division entering play Friday). The Cubs have eyes on another championship ring and Kimbrel is under contract through at least the 2021 season — the same length of time as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, among others. 

"It's just about getting your arm in shape, making sure everything's sharp, but mostly, it's just getting those reps, make sure you don't blow out," Cishek said. "If you try to rush it too quick, that's when things can go wrong. 

"Getting that stamina back up to where it needs to be because when you face hitters, it's way different than throwing a bullpen. Your heart rate's up, you're throwing everything with more intent, so just gotta get back into game shape."