MILWAUKEE â RightÂ when everything seemed to be coming together for the Cubs, they were dealt another couple doses of bad news on the injury front.
Following their second-to-last off-day of the season, the Cubs looked to be nearing full strength, with Yu Darvish throwing a bullpen at Miller Park Thursday afternoon and Kris Bryant and Javy Baez initially back in the lineup. It was also the second straight game in which Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras had returned as starters following their respective absences.
But then the Cubs had to place Craig Kimbrel on the injured list with right elbow inflammation Thursday and about an hour before the game, Baez was scratched with the same thumb injury that kept him out of Monday and Tuesday’s games.
It all wound up just fine for the Cubs for one day, at least, as they took down the Brewers 10-5 âÂ and outscored the Bears âÂ Thursday evening behind Kyle Schwarber’s grand slam andÂ Zobrist reaching base five times out of the leadoff spot. It also keeps the Cubs 2.5 games back in the division, keeping pace with a Cardinals team that won earlier in the day.
Baez thought he would be good to go after jamming his left thumb on a slide Sunday, but it flared up again during batting practice pregame and he shut it down and was subsequently scratched from the lineup.
This is the second stint on the IL for Kimbrel, who felt the elbow issue during his last outing on Sunday. The MRI was clean, showing no structural damage, but the inflammation has persisted and the Cubs want to make sure it calms down. The move was retroactive to Monday, so the closer can come off the injured list next Thursday in San Diego if he’s ready.
It’s obviously not ideal for the Cubs or Kimbrel. He is 13-for-15 in save situations with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 21 games since signing with the Cubs on June 7. He also experienced a knee issue that kept him on the shelf for two weeks in August.
It’s certainly been an unconventional season for Kimbrel, who did not get a spring training or the benefit of working up to full strength on a normal schedule or routine with the late signing. WouldÂ things have been different had he signed in January or February?
“We’ll never know,” Theo Epstein said. “That narrative makes some sense. He’s tried to do something very few guys have done âÂ come in mid-season like that and pitch at the end of games. So I’m not gonna sit here and say it has nothing to do with it. It certainly could.
“And then sometimes when you have a lower body injury, you come back from that and full exertion, you can compensate in other areas. He is trying to do something that very few guys have ever done and I think he’ll be better next year when he’s got a full ramp-up.
“… I still think the story has yet to be written about his contribution this year. If this goes according to plan, he feels good and we get him back, he can save a lot of big games for us the rest of this month and hopefully next month.”
Even if Kimbrel is able to return when first eligible next Thursday, there will only be 17 games remaining in the Cubs season at that point as they try to catch âÂ and hold off âÂ the Cardinals in the divisional race.Â
Epstein and the Cubs are confident they can mix-and-match at the back end of the bullpen in Kimbrel’s absence, as veterans (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, David Phelps) mixÂ with 2019 breakout relievers (Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan) and some young up-and-comers (Duane Underwood Jr. and Brad Wieck). Getting Pedro Strop back to form would also be a huge boost for this club.
Baez getting scratched from Thursday’s game was a surprise, as both Epstein and Joe Maddon talked optimistically earlier in the afternoonÂ about getting the All-Star shortstop back.Â Maddon even went so far as to say Baez’s thumb was “80 percent” if he had to guess, but that was before batting practice.
“He felt decent swinging,” Maddon said roughly a half-hour before Baez wasÂ scratched. “It’s still a concern even catching the ball. That bothers him a little bit, but he’s a pretty tough kid. He’ll manage all that once he gets out there, but he came in and sat with me and adamantly said, ‘I’m ready to go.'”
Epstein also spoke about how Baez’s thumb “is starting to feel a little bit better” and was hoping for an offensive breakout from the slugger in the upcoming games. The Cubs are now in a stretch of 18 straight games without an off-day, so they could certainly use Baez back in the lineup.
On the positive end of the injury spectrum, Bryant was able to returnÂ as he continues to work through a right knee issue that has been plaguing him for the last five weeks. He was on base three times Thursday night and moved from third base to left field and back to third base in the ballgame.
The formerÂ MVP said the knee does not impact him in the batter’s box at all, but is something he feels when he’s sliding a lot or diving in the field or even just hitting the first-base bag hard.Â
It’s gotten to the point where Bryant is actually trying to reprogram his body to hit first base with his left leg now, instead of his right âÂ something he’s never really worried about.
“It’s just treatment and stuff that I’m gonna have to do to make me feel better,” he said. “Obviously an offseason would make it feel much better when you have extended amounts of time off, but we don’t have that. We have games we gotta win.”
Since he came out of the series finale in San Francisco on July 24 (the first time the knee affected his playing status), Bryant is hitting just .229Â with only 9 extra-base hits (5 homers) in 131Â at-bats. He’s also struck out 42Â times against only 13Â walks in that 35-game span (including Thursday).
It sounds like Bryant won’t be able to completely eradicate the knee injury before the season ends, so this will be something he has to play through over the final few weeks and any playoff action.
Meanwhile, the Cubs are feeling very optimistic about Darvish’s status for Saturday after he missed his last start with forearm tightness. He threw a 29-pitch bullpen session Thursday afternoon and reported no issues.Â
The Cubs wanted to treat it like a normal between-starts bullpen and Darvish threw a variety of different pitches and came away feeling confident about the status of his right arm.
The team will see how he responds Friday after the bullpen before making a final determination for Saturday’s start.Â
They will also monitor Darvish’s workload overall throughout the final couple months of the season and make sure they don’t push him too hard. He only threw 40 innings last year while dealing with a bone bruise and elbow injury and is already at 152 innings this year.
But that’s a tough balance to strike when the Cubs are 2.5 games behind the red-hot Cardinals and every game âÂ and inning âÂ is important.
“It’s tough,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I feel like once October hits, everything kinda goes out the window. And even now in September, it is, too. We’re just trying to be right by him and by what’s best for our team and all those situations. And what’s best for our team is making sure we get Darvish for every start the rest of the season âÂ not just one game going eight or nine innings.”