The strange balancing act Cubs relievers have walked down the stretch


Before Pedro Strop hobbled off the field at Nationals Park two weeks ago, the main narrative surrounding the Cubs' top relievers was how often they were being used.

After losing Strop for a couple of weeks, manager Joe Maddon acknowleged he had no idea who would close for the Cubs considering everybody in that bullpen was running on fumes.

Since that day, the Cubs' top relievers have gotten plenty of rest.

Too much rest, actually.

Steve Cishek and Jesse Chavez had been used so sparingly, they actively tried to figure out ways to stay sharp in between appearances.

Here's how the workload of the Cubs' top four relievers (Cishek, Chavez, Justin Wilson and Carl Edwards Jr.) between the day Strop got hurt Sept. 13 entering play Thursday:


Wilson - 4
Cishek - 4
Edwards - 3
Chavez - 3

Innings (total)

Wilson - 2.1
Cishek - 2.1
Edwards - 2.1
Chavez - 4

Pitches (total)

Wilson - 43
Cishek - 46
Edwards - 43
Chavez - 62

Cishek and Edwards also pitched Thursday night, tossing a scoreless inning apiece.

All four pitchers appeared in Wednesday night's victory and collectively gave up four runs to let the Pirates tie the game.

Part of that could be due to rust. 

"I don't know if it's too much rest, actually, 'cause these guys have gotten almost too much rest," Maddon said after Wednesday's 7-6 victory. "The main characters out of the bullpen. I don't know, but [Cishek] has been off just a click. He's used to pitching more often."

That's very true. 

In the Cubs' first 146 games, Cishek made 72 appearances — in other words, he pitched basically every other game on average.

Since that Strop injury, Cishek appeared in only 3 of the Cubs' next 11 games before pitching in back-to-back contests Wednesday and Thursday night. He's still blown by his previous career high in appearances (77 this year vs. 69 in 2013) and is only two outs away from the most innings he's pitched in a season (69.2, also in 2013).

He admits he's not quite where he wants to be with his mechanics at the moment.

"Mentally, I feel really good," Cishek said. "It's just about putting it all together. Just had a couple pitches leak over the middle today. One of them thankfully was a groundball to get out of it. 

"...I think I'm getting closer for sure. I felt a lot better today than I did in the previous couple outings, so that was encouraging."

Cishek has been a little shaky lately, with a 6.00 ERA and 1.67 WHIP with 3 homers allowed over his last 14 appearances (9 innings).

He never admitted it, but Maddon posed the idea that it's possible Cishek was feeling a little worn out earlier this month.

Yet now, the 32-year-old veteran needs to find a way to get enough work in to get his mechanics in line while still being available to pitch in games.

"Right now, I'm obviously trying to get my stuff sharp so I'm ready for the postseason," Cishek said. "It's tough because as a relief pitcher, you know the things you wanna work on, but you also have to save bullets before the game. 

"I think that's every reliever's challenge. I just try to get as much in as I can knowing that I'm saving my arm for the game as well. It's a challenge for everyone. Get your work in, try to limit it as much as you can, but get some positives out of it and move on."

Cishek's work-around for trying to get back into his top form is utilizing his warm-up throws as a sort of bullpen. That includes when he's warming to come into a game and when he's just playing catch on flat ground, as most Cubs relievers do on a daily basis a few hours before that day's game.

Chavez, meanwhile, is in a different territory. 

He's got such a rubber arm, he would prefer to throw every single day and he doesn't like going more than two days without getting on a mound.

The 35-year-old journeyman is on track to make his first postseason appearance (he made it to October with the 2013 Oakland A's, but didn't pitch) in a few days and said he feels like his mechanics get out of whack if he gives his arm too much time off.

"[I get work in] off to the side, in the weight room," Chavez said. "Whether it's working out and doing extra cardio to make sure that when you're called to throw more pitches than you're used to, your endurance and stamina are there. Or it's just throwing off the mound in between, trying to be as sharp as you can."

The Cubs still don't know when they'll get Strop back or if he'll have an opportunity to get much work before the playoffs start.

Maddon also can't run all his top bullpen arms into the ground over the final weekend of the regular season — in case they're needed for a Game 163 tiebreaker on Monday, a wild-card game on Tuesday or just to ensure they're still feeling "frisky" for the NLDS.

But whenever the Cubs' first postseason game is, they'll need to rely on their "A" relievers to be firing on all cylinders.

Wilson has been sort of the de facto closer with Strop out and he acknowledged part of his issue in Wednesday's blown save was that he just didn't feel as sharp as he would like.

"I just think it's kind of the nature of the beast," Wilson said. "Clearly at the end of the season, {Maddon's] not trying to overwork us and keep us fresh for playoffs, but we might hit a stretch where we're pitching three days in a row, which he doesn't like to do as it is.

"Just depends on the score of the game, really. But I think come playoff time, fresh or not, you're going to have the adrenaline.

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