ATLANTA – Cubs rookie Daniel Palencia waited while Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. pulled second base out of the dirt and into the sky in the 10th inning on Wednesday night. The rescuer stood by as a video montage played and the crowd at Truist Park cheered.
The moment was well-deserved — Acuña became the first player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and 70 steals in a season — but it was another source of stress for a member of the Cubs’ loaded and worn-out relief corps. One pitch later, Palencia gave up a walk-off single to Ozzie Albies, sending the Cubs to a 6-5 loss and eliminating Chicago from the current postseason field.
“We believe in the group,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said. “We still have four games left to get this thing done.”
After a standout performance of six-plus innings from starter Jameson Taillon, the Braves fought back and eventually prevailed against the Cubs’ bullpen. Manager David Ross pulled out all the stops at his disposal, but injuries and other problems mounted, rendering his previous late-inning formula obsolete.
The Cubs were without closer Adbert Alzolay and veteran Michael Fulmer, two key players who are currently on the injured list. Mark Leiter Jr., who hadn’t pitched in a week, came in for a save and then allowed a game-winning home run to Marcell Ozuna in the ninth inning.
“We’re certainly not at full strength,” Ross said.
In the hours before Wednesday’s loss – the second straight heartbreak for the North Siders – Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer took a seat in the visitors’ dugout and discussed the bullpen situation. It was an aspect of the roster that could have been addressed more strongly last offseason and at the trade deadline.
“At the deadline, we had a lot of factors,” Hoyer said, “and there weren’t really any weapons that we felt we had access to at that point.” And if you look around, a lot of teams had the same challenge. I think it comes down to just building that depth and I think ultimately you have to rely on player development.
“I think that was effective for a lot of the season. It hasn’t worked lately, so I have to look at myself and say, ‘What are we going to do differently next year?'”
The fact that the Cubs are in this position at all, with four games left trying to punch their ticket to the October round, is a credit to the bullpen’s midseason performance. After a difficult May (5.19 ERA) for the pen, Ross let Alzolay emerge as the closer, with Leiter, Fulmer and Julian Merryweather serving as primary relievers.
The Cubs slipped to 10 games under .500 (26-36) on June 8th, but then posted a record of 50-28 through September 6th. From June 9 through the end of July, Chicago ranked first in the majors with a bullpen ERA of 3.03.
“We got to a point of real stability for a long time and had a really good bullpen,” Hoyer said. “Obviously the guys we rely on at the moment are often not the guys we were for a long time. And at this point we just have to figure it out.
“Other teams are in this position. We have to put it together differently. We had a pretty good formula for a long time. This formula no longer exists. So you have to find a new one.”
Left-hander Drew Smyly moved from the rotation to the bullpen and played an important role, including escaping a jam in the seventh on Wednesday to keep the Cubs’ lead at 3-2. Jose Cuas – who was signed at the deadline – also handled a tricky situation in the ninth period, holding the game tight and forcing extra players.
“There are so many guys that have come through for us all year,” said Happ, who was pleased with the loss. “This stretch that we had from mid-May to August and mid-September is just incredible. These guys take the ball every day. They work hard.”
Before Wednesday’s game, Alzolay threw 20 pitches in a live batting practice at Truist Park. After that session, the closer said he hoped to come off the injured list on Friday and admitted it had been difficult being on the sidelines the last two weeks.
“You just see the guys out there competing every day,” Alzolay said, “and just giving it everything they’ve got. “It’s something that really drives me to keep going.”
If the Cubs do make the playoffs, the bullpen will remain a key factor in how long the team’s October run lasts.
The North Siders have to get there first.
“I thought we did it today,” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said. “Just the way we do it tomorrow and the day after and trust that it works out as well as it can in the next four games. That’s what we can control.”