Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel appears close to return from injured list after an ‘encouraging’ simulated game

The seven-time All-Star hasn’t pitched since Sept. 1 because of elbow soreness. But he might be ready to pitch as the Cubs face the Cardinals in seven of their final 10 games, perhaps just in time to help a team that lost 4-2 to the Reds on Tuesday.

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Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel hasn’t pitched since Sept. 1 because of a sore right elbow.

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

A Cubs bullpen with the best ERA in the National League this month might get a big boost in time for a final-week playoff push if closer Craig Kimbrel rebounds well from a 16-pitch simulated inning.

‘‘There was no hesitation with his arm; he wasn’t guarding whatsoever,’’ manager Joe Maddon said before the Cubs’ 4-2 loss Tuesday to Sonny Gray and the Reds. ‘‘It was encouraging.’’

Kimbrel, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 1 because of a sore right elbow, will be evaluated Wednesday. At that time, a return from the injured list for the series against the Cardinals, which begins Thursday, might be plotted.

‘‘Or it could be another live [batting practice],’’ pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. ‘‘Anytime you’re dealing with an elbow, you want to make sure that every step of the way he feels better. Timetable is one thing, but it’s more about how he recovers every single day.’’

Timetable? When the Brewers won Tuesday, they tied the Cubs for the NL’s second wild-card position with 11 games to play. Both trail the NL Central-leading Cardinals by two games and the NL wild-card-leading Nationals by 1½.

Despite Kimbrel’s absence and a day-to-day oblique injury to veteran setup man Brandon Kintzler, the Cubs’ bullpen added two scoreless innings to its September résumé (2.25 ERA in 64 innings) in relief of starter Yu Darvish.

Kimbrel, who also spent time on the IL last month with a sore knee, has a 5.68 ERA in 21 appearances but is 13-for-15 in save chances with a 3.29 ERA in those games.

‘‘I think the best version of him is still in there,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘But the 85 to 90 percent version of him is as good as anybody.’’

Kintzler, who has been the Cubs’ most consistent reliever this season (2.82 ERA), has been dealing with oblique pain for weeks. He hasn’t pitched since experiencing what he called his ‘‘worst pain’’ last week in San Diego but plans to test it from a mound Wednesday in the hope he can return Friday.

Darvish in the K zone

Four of the first five Reds reached in the first inning against Darvish, including a three-run home run by Aristides Aquino, but he was record-setting brilliant after that.

Darvish, who has been the Cubs’ best pitcher since the All-Star break, retired all but three batters in the rest of his seven innings.

‘‘I’m at a pretty good place,’’ Darvish said. ‘‘But we need wins at this point, so I’m still frustrated.’’

Darvish retired 12 in a row after the first five batters, including eight consecutive strikeouts among 13 overall. The eight strikeouts in a row were a franchise record for a single game.

Three other Cubs have struck out eight batters in a row over multiple games: Kyle Farnsworth and Kerry Wood in 2001 and Juan Cruz in 2003.

Darvish has a 2.70 ERA, 106 strikeouts and seven walks in 73„ innings since the break (12 starts).

This and that

Shortstop Javy Baez, who hasn’t played since suffering a hairline fracture in his left thumb Sept. 1, will be examined this week to determine whether he’s ready to begin rehab activity.

• Catcher Willson Contreras started at first base for the first time since 2017 in place of injured Anthony Rizzo (ankle), but Maddon said he’ll start behind the plate the next two nights.

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