So much for Dexter Fowler’s August clinching party.
A few hours after the Cubs center fielder talked about wrapping up a playoff berth before September, the Cubs beat the Angels 3-1 for their season-high ninth straight victory – but not before watching another late-inning reliever succumb to injury.
Two weeks after they traded for Aroldis Chapman to give their bullpen one of the most formidable looks in the National League, the Cubs in a matter of days have lost their top two setup men to injuries – this time Pedro Strop suffering a left knee injury fielding a grounder leading off the eighth.
Strop, who was unable to put weight on the leg as he was helped from the field, is scheduled for an MRI Thursday as the second-place Cardinals arrive for a four-game series.
Hector Rondon, who hasn’t pitched in a week because of triceps tightness, also is expected to be sidelined for at least two more days after reporting improvement Wednesday when he played catch before the game.
“It changes the entire complexion of the group,” Maddon said. “It makes [Joe Smith] more pertinent. I’m not going to beat up C.J. [Edwards] for sure. I know that much.
“We’re going to have to look at different folks.”
Whether the suddenly depleted condition of the bullpen changes the complexion of the Cubs’ race to clinch a second straight playoff berth, it didn’t keep them from preserving their 12-game lead over the Cardinals with a 12th victory in 13 games.
“We’re trying to clinch as soon as possible. We want to do it right before September,” Fowler said before the game, smiling. “Just kidding. But as soon as possible and get some guys some rest.”
Not so fast? Maybe.
If Strop goes on the disabled list, recently optioned Justin Grimm is expected to be recalled from AAA Iowa to replace him.
On this night, rookie Carl Edwards Jr. showed again the reason Maddon said over the weekend he has the 96-mph stuff to close.
With runners at second and third and nobody out in the eighth in a 2-0 game, Edwards struck out 2014 MVP Mike Trout on a checked swing, then got three-time MVP Albert Pujols on a 3-2 grounder toward the middle that second baseman Ben Zobrist turned into an out as one run scored.
He finished the inning inducing a grounder by Andrelton Simmons that shortstop Addison Russell turned into an out on a charging play.
“Wow,” Maddon said of Edwards’ performance.
“C.J.’s going to be a lights-out pitcher for us,” said Russell, who added a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth.
Maddon has stressed a reluctance to push Edwards’ workload to preserve as a late-season and postseason weapon, and he says that won’t change with the new bullpen issues – even if Edwards is willing.
“I feel like I can do that,” Edwards said of picking up a bigger load in Strop’s absence. “I feel I can step in and just do my job.”
Until the late-inning drama, Jason Hammel (12-5) made one of his strongest starts of the season in his return from bereavement leave, allowing just four singles in seven scoreless.
The Cubs swept the four-game season series from the Angels, in part by holding Trout and Pujols to a combined 1-for-30 with eight strikeouts – the lone hit Trout’s infield single to short in Wednesday’s fourth.
They improved to 13-4 in interleague play, matching their 2013 team mark for most interleague wins in a season.
With Hammel’s fifth victory in as many starts since the All-Star break (1.16 ERA in that span), the Cubs improved to 19-6 since July 10 – the starters going 15-4 with a 2.50 ERA in that stretch.
The last full turn through the rotation, the starters have allowed just four runs in five games (37 1/3 innings).
“They’ve been very pitch efficient on top of that,” Maddon said. “They’re throwing strikes.”