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Cubs ride bullpen to victory as they await possible return of closer Craig Kimbrel this week

The seven-time All-Star has a simulated game scheduled Tuesday that could be the final step in returning from the injured list in time to face the Cards this weekend.

Chicago Cubs v New York Mets
Kimbrel has been on the injured list twice (knee, elbow) since signing as a free agent in June.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The state of the Cubs’ tenuous playoff chances with two weeks left in the season was underscored when manager Joe Maddon went to his bullpen with one out in the fourth inning to pull a shaky Cole Hamels and protect an early two-run lead on the way to an 8-2 victory over the Reds.

The state of the Cubs’ bullpen, in turn, may have to wait on closer Craig Kimbrel for at least a few more days.

Kimbrel, who has been sidelined by a sore elbow the last two weeks, is scheduled to throw a simulated game situation Tuesday in the biggest potential indicator yet for if the Cubs will get the seven-time All-Star back for the stretch run.

Maddon and team president Theo Epstein said Monday it’s realistic to think Kimbrel could return in time to face the Cardinals this weekend during a four-game series that closes the Cubs’ home schedule.

“He’s been really trending in the right direction,” Maddon said before the Cubs’ fifth consecutive victory. “There’s no reason to hold him back if he feels well.”

Monday’s quick call to the bullpen was helped by a 47-run weekend series of blowouts against the Pirates that kept the heart of the Cubs’ bullpen fresh and rested — and required by the moment.

“This wasn’t April, May, June baseball,” said Maddon, who went to setup man Steve Cishek for two outs and then got two innings each from Alec Mills (1-0) and Rowan Wick.

“I understand what each game means to us and what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Hamels, the playoff veteran who has struggled since returning from an oblique injury nine starts ago.

Russell practices

The day after Addison Russell, the Cubs’ No. 2 shortstop, was formally put on the concussion injured list, he took swings off a tee during pregame work on the field Monday.

“He’s just got to get to the point where he can get to the return-to-play protocol,” said Epstein, who made the move with the infielder after it became clear over the weekend he would need at least a few more days.

Russell was hit in the head by a pitch Sept. 8 in Milwaukee and has been in baseball’s concussion protocol since. He’s eligible to return Thursday.

Where will Russell go?

The performance the past week of rookie shorstop Nico Hoerner, who was forced into a big-league debut by back-to-back injuries to shortstop Javy Baez and Russell, made Sunday’s IL move easier to make.

Maddon reiterated Monday the likelihood he’ll leave Hoerner at short indefinitely, even when Russell returns — in large part to keep

“Listen, if this kid continues to do what he’s doing, why would I want to change something like that,” Maddon said. “This is not denigrating [Russell]. There’s different ways to get Addison in ballgames. He’s still the primary defender; there’s no question about that. I don’t want to put any thoughts in Nico’s head, either: ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ He’s done so many things fundamentally right at shortstop, just little nuance stuff. Plus his at-bats have been stellar.

“Let’s just get Addy well, and then we’ll figure the other part of that out.”

Kintzler ailing

Brandon Kintzler, one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers all season (2.82 ERA), hasn’t pitched since Tuesday in San Diego because of a “mild left oblique strain,” the club said.

He has been playing catch in recent days, testing it in hopes of returning to help the Cubs close out a playoff push the final two weeks.