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Cubs ‘blanked’? Joe Maddon to ‘play the Match Game’ again with Craig Kimbrel back on IL

The closer went on the IL before Thursday’s game in Milwaukee because of elbow soreness that arose during Sunday’s rough outing, but the Cubs are optimistic he’ll return by the end of next week.

Chicago Cubs v New York Mets
Kimbrel during the ninth inning of a game last week in New York.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs watched their bullpen struggle to close games for nearly half a season before signing Craig Kimbrel. And now they won’t have the seven-time All-Star for a critical road trip in September.

“Just the nature of the season it seems,” manager Joe Maddon said after Kimbrel went on the injured list Thursday because of elbow inflammation as the Cubs opened a key four-game series in Milwaukee.

The move is backdated to Sunday, when Kimbrel reported soreness after a rough ninth inning against the Brewers. Kimbrel is eligible to return in the final game of the road trip, Thursday in San Diego.

Team president Theo Epstein said an MRI exam on Kimbrel’s elbow showed no structural damage, and Epstein is optimistic the closer will return by the end of next week.

But Kimbrel won’t throw for at least the next few days, and if he misses even eight games, that’s one-third of the remaining schedule in a tight race for a playoff spot.

It’s already the second time Kimbrel has been on the injured list since joining the team in late June, missing two weeks early last month because of a sore knee.

“It’s not ideal to be without a guy like that, even if it’s only for a week,” Epstein said. “But I think we have a number of guys throwing really well in the pen, and we’re coming off an off day. I think we’re in position to handle it.

“I’m still optimistic we’ll be able to thrive and then get a boost when he comes back.”

Maddon, who has been without a closer for all but seven weeks since the 2018 All-Star break, plans to go back to the mix-and-match closer formula he has employed for most of the season.

“We’ll play the ‘Match Game,’ starring Gene Rayburn, tonight,” he said. “We’ve done it before. Everybody’s ready to rock and roll. We’ve got plenty of candidates tonight.”

As long as they don’t start looking like Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers again (look it up).

El Mago? Poof!

Shortstop Javy Baez was back in the lineup for an hour or so Thursday before taking batting practice and being bothered again by the irritation in the left thumb he jammed during the game Sunday.

Last year’s MVP runner-up then was scratched.

The injury is not considered serious, and Baez’s status for the rest of the series is unclear. Maddon estimated the health of Baez’s thumb at 80 percent before BP.

Darvish looks ready for Saturday

Four days after being scratched from his scheduled start because of forearm tightness, right-hander Yu Darvish fared well enough in a 29-pitch between-starts bullpen session to make his next scheduled start Saturday.

“As of right now,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We’ve got to see how he feels [Friday]. But unless something comes up [Friday] and he gets some stiffness from the bullpen, then that’s a different story. But for right now, I would imagine he’s ready to go on Saturday.”

This and that

After putting Kimbrel on the IL, the Cubs recalled David Bote without having to wait out the rest of the 10-day minimum since his demotion Saturday.

• Catcher Taylor Davis was optioned back to Class AAA Iowa after spending three games on the roster as an emergency backup while the Cubs awaited the return of Willson Contreras from injury.