Tommy Hottovy

How oft-used Steve Cishek plans to avoid a late-season fade in Cubs bullpen

How oft-used Steve Cishek plans to avoid a late-season fade in Cubs bullpen

If you pick any random Cubs game on the schedule to watch, there's roughly a 50 percent chance you'll see Steve Cishek pitch.

Cishek is the veteran, rubber-armed reliever out of the Cubs bullpen who appeared in nearly half the team's games last year (80) and is on track to approach that number again this season (76).

The 33-year-old with the side-arm delivery only made 40 appearances in the Cubs' first 90 games, but he got the call in eight of the first 11 games coming out of the All-Star Break, pitching twice in each of the four series.

The four-day midseason break helped, as do the off-days each of the last two weeks, but it's "go time" for the Cubs right now as they mount a push toward the playoffs. That means Cishek is going to throw as much as he can take given how important he is to the Cubs bullpen and how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him.

It's easy to see why Cishek is so trusted — a 2.53 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9 holds, 7 saves and scoreless outings in 40 of his 48 appearances.

The 33-year-old finished 2018 with fantastic overall numbers — 2.18 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 4 saves, 10.0 K/9 — but he did start to fade down the stretch, posting a 4.76 ERA and 1.41 WHIP over the final five weeks.

This year, he's hoping to avoid a similar downturn.

"I tried to combat that in the offseason, really," Cishek said. "I pushed myself pretty hard in the offseason with legs and shoulders big time. The place I train at pushes it, just so I could carry the load during the season without having to break down.

"But last year was a little bit different. Obviously it's the most appearances I've ever had, but for the most part, I was able to pitch every other day because I was able to keep my pitch count low. And then I had days of recovery they gave off for me, made sure I got my soft-tissue work in and I was well-rested sleep-wise. 

"I felt OK. September, maybe I was feeling it a little bit, but honestly, I didn't feel that bad."

Cishek is in his second season in Chicago now and that means another year of rapport with manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy (who wasn't the pitching coach last season, but worked closely with all the pitchers as the run prevention coordinator).

So as Cishek works to stay fresh down the stretch for the Cubs as one of their most pivotal bullpen arms, he's constantly talking to Maddon and Hottovy.

"[I told them], 'I like and guys like to know when you have that day off 'cause we're so routine-oriented that if I can have a full day of not going through my routine and mentally going through all my checklists and just kinda go out there, play catch and have a mental day off, that goes a long way,'" Cishek said. "They've been really good about communicating that this year, like, 'Hey, you're down a day.' 

"Even, for instance, [last] week — 'you're gonna be off today and the off-day. Have yourself a little day.' It's kinda nice to not have that mental checklist to go through every day."

How has that dialogue changed from a season ago?

"Last year, they were pretty good communicating that," Cishek said. "There were some times where it'd be kinda like a game-time decision, so I already went through my whole routine and stuff. And that's fine, I'm just saying it's helpful — just a little extra help [to know earlier]. 

"Last year, the communication was great. I felt pretty good. I was honest with them and to be honest, you're not gonna feel great everyday as it is anyways. If they need you, I'm the type of guy — you're paying me a lot of money, I want to be out there for the team, for the boys, for the organization. That's just kinda how I think through stuff."

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

Just a few weeks after utilizing a six-man rotation, the Cubs are considering dropping back to a four-man starting staff for a bit.

Cole Hamels threw a bullpen Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field and reportedly felt great, but he's still at least a week or so away from returning to the Cubs rotation.

Couple that with the four days off for the All-Star Break last week and regular off-days coming up (three more still in July), the Cubs don't have an actual *need* for a fifth starter more than once between now and Aug. 3, as their four mainstays will be able to go on regular rest.

"We're gonna discuss that internally — things we want to do," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "We have the ability to go with a four-man [rotation] for an extended period of time with those off-days."

Hottovy acknowledged a four-man rotation is the Cubs' preference rather than keep Alec Mills in the rotation long-term, but there are many factors to consider.

"Our guys are feeling good, so we don't want to push the envelope with all these off-days and [tell the pitchers], 'you're still gonna be on a five-day rotation,'" Hottovy said. "So we gotta all talk and communicate about how guys are feeling and make that decision."

The Cubs have been cautious with their pitchers coming out of the break, too, given they've all been thrown off their normal rhythms and routines. It's also worth noting that Kyle Hendricks is still working his way back up to full strength after a shoulder injury cost him much of June.

When the Cubs opted to go with a six-man rotation last month, the whole idea was to rest these guys and make sure they're feeling fresh for the second half and down the stretch. The team had a pretty brutal stretch — 52 games in 54 days — before the All-Star Break.

But if everything continues to progress with Hamels and his oblique injury, the Cubs may not need a four-man rotation for long, even if they opt to go that route. 

After Wednesday's bullpen, the Cubs are going to give Hamels a couple days to recover and will plan another bullpen for this weekend (likely Saturday). Just like with Hendricks' recovery, the first bullpen is more for a gauge to see where the guy is at physically and then the second one will be more of a normal routine and getting back into rhythm mechanically, etc.

Following that weekend bullpen, the Cubs don't know yet whether they're going to have Hamels throw a simulated game or go on a rehab assignment as the next step. They'll evaluate all that this weekend and thanks to the regular time off coming up, they know they don't have to push it.

"If he feels good, we also don't want to slow-play Cole Hamels," Hottovy said. "He's a guy we want in the rotation."

The Cubs are off Thursday but then play six straight games and they will need a fifth starter for that stretch (next Tuesday in San Francisco).

As of right now, it sure looks like that guy could be Mills, who rebounded nicely after a rough first inning during Tuesday night's victory. 

Mills — a 27-year-old right-hander — has only pitched 11 career games in the big leagues, but he's been a nice depth option for the Cubs the last couple years. Including Tuesday night, he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 24 big-league innings for the Cubs the last two seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence [in him]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely a big-league caliber pitcher. I don't think he's a 4-A guy; I think he's more than that. He just needs opportunity."

Both Maddon and Hottovy mentioned Mills' last start with the Cubs last August when he gave up a first-inning grand slam to the Mets before settling in to throw 4+ innings of solid ball from there.

Tuesday night, Mills got two quick outs (thanks in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s defense) and then served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suarez, who absolutely kills the Cubs. From there, it was back-to-back hit batters and then a groundball basehit that went right to where third baseman Kris Bryant would've been standing had he not broke for the bag to cover on a steal attempt.

Mills was inches away from getting out of the first inning with only 1 run allowed, but he also only eventually escaped the jam when Almora threw a runner out at home plate on a double off the wall — or else there could've been even more damage.

After that, Mills held the Reds scoreless for the next five innings to notch the first quality start of his career.

"He regrouped well," Hottovy said. "Millsy's a pro. The guy's been mostly a minor-league guy, but I still consider him kind of one of those veteran guys. He's smart, he's poised. He comes in after that inning and he's like, 'Yeah, I thought I did this well, I didn't do this well.' And then we talked through it and he's able to wipe it clean and then reset. 

"It was such a good job by him to be able to do that with a good hitting team — to come back and set the tone. It's easy to have that inning and then kinda let things keep escalating. He was able to go right back down the next inning and shut 'em down and that really set the tone."

The forgotten man in the Cubs bullpen is hitting the reset button

The forgotten man in the Cubs bullpen is hitting the reset button

Don't forget about Brandon Kintzler.

He was the most high-profile of the Cubs' midseason bullpen additions last summer, but struggled out of the gate and faded into the background while less-heralded veterans Jesse Chavez and Jorge De La Rosa emerged as diamonds in the rough.

Chavez and De La Rosa are gone, but Kintzler remains a part of a Cubs bullpen that is firmly under the microscope this spring.

His introduction to the Cubs was forgettable (7.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP in 25 games) but he conceded he put too much pressure on himself and relished the opportunity to hit the reset button this winter.

"Oh yeah, it's definitely [a fresh start]," he said at Cubs camp last month. "I think mentally more than anything. Just getting everything behind you, now settled down with a new team, starting to know the guys. You just get back into your routine and do what you do.

"If you're not mentally right, you're never gonna be physically right. So I think just being mentally home and start all over."

There's no getting around it — Kintzler was part of the reason the Cubs did not have much financial flexibility this winter. They declined his $10 million team option but he still had a $5 million player option, which he immediately picked up.

That $5 million could've gone a long way in the free agent market this winter — especially in augmenting the bullpen — but there's also a very real scenario here that Kintzler becomes a somewhat surprising contributor to the relief corps.

Yes, he's 34 (and turns 35 in August). No, he doesn't strike many guys out (6.1 career K/9).

But this is also a guy who has a career 3.48 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 67 holds and 48 saves. He's pitched in every role imaginable in a big-league bullpen and he's been through pennant races. When he's on, he's one of the best groundball pitchers in the game and the Cubs have an infield defense capable of being elite.

And that's exactly what the Cubs want him to do — pound his sinker in the zone and induce a lot of grounders.

When the Cubs were in Las Vegas for the MLB Winter Meetings in December, new pitching coach Tommy Hottovy reached out to Kintzler and made a stop at the veteran pitcher's home in the area to watch him throw.

"That was impressive," Kintzler said. "I've never had a pitching coach come out to my house and watch me play catch. It shows he cares and he wants to help me."

Hottovy is a big proponent of analytics, having spent the last few seasons as the Cubs' run prevention coordinator before his promotion. There's so much information out there for baseball players nowadays and it's the job of Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff to weed through it all and whittle it down to the most important nuggets.

That will be imperative to any success Kintzler has this year, who acknowledges the benefits of analytics while also recognizing that all the information can be too much for him at times. 

Last year, he thought he got too caught up with adjusting to the Cubs' way of doing things and away from what he does best.

"When you come to a new team and you're just trying to fit in and see what they do, you kinda get away from everything and try to do what they think you should do or what a scouting report says," Kintzler said. "I've never actually been a huge scouting report guy. I've always just been a 'let's see what happens' kinda guy. 

"I want to get back to doing that and have that mentality. My old bullpen coach in Minnesota was Eddie Guardado and he was all about going in and attacking. That was always my mentality when I was with him, so if I get back to that, I think we'll be alright."

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