At least one member of the Cubs’ bullpen likes to wear a shirt with “Failed Starter” emblazoned across the chest, but it’s not likely that Alec Mills will be donning one himself. His vision for his future involves pitching every fifth day.
Mills’ start Wednesday against the Phillies — which helped the Cubs to an 8-3 victory that snapped a hideous 11-game losing streak — was his fifth in a row since sliding into the rotation in mid-June. He pitched five scoreless innings before allowing three runs in the sixth on Bryce Harper’s RBI double and Andrew McCutchen’s two-run homer.
In all, Mills (4-2) went 5⅔ innings with the three runs, five hits, five strikeouts and a walk, giving the bullpen a much-needed rest after relievers were called upon to pick up 7⅔ innings in a 15-10 loss Tuesday night. Cubs starters have struggled to go deep into games this season, and the strain on the bullpen shows in a 6.75 ERA among relievers since June 21. The pen had 332 ⅓ innings entering Wednesday, the seventh-most in baseball.
Mills’ outing continued a recent trend for him. Against the Reds on July 2, he struck out nine in 5 ⅔ innings while allowing just two runs. On June 20, he threw five scoreless innings against the Marlins.
Last September, he tossed a no-hitter against the Brewers.
“I think obviously the success is going to do nothing but help you further,” Mills said. “But you know, really just here to do what I can to help.”
He also sees himself as a permanent member of the rotation in the future, even though he has started just six times in 18 appearances this year — consistent with the way the Cubs have used him since he joined the organization in 2018.
“Multiple roles, very versatile,” Ross said. “Kind of a Swiss Army knife — he fills in in the bullpen, [and] even though he wants to start, he’s willing to do what’s best for us.”
With the Cubs’ pitching situation in flux, Mills probably stands to play a bigger role going forward. Starter Jake Arrieta went on the injured list Wednesday with a hamstring issue, and although Trevor Williams was activated Tuesday, Ross said the plan for the near future is to use Williams in long relief because that’s where the bullpen is thin.
If Arrieta’s hamstring keeps him out of the rotation for a while and Williams continues to be needed out of the pen, Mills might see more time as a starter.
“That guy’s got extreme confidence in himself, and I have a lot of confidence in him,” Ross said. “He’s been a huge piece in our organization and our team that you rely on, and knowing that you can fill him in a lot of spots and you kind of plug some holes.”
The Cubs picked up on offense where they had left off the previous night, when they scored 10 runs for the first time since May 29 against the Reds. They lit up Phillies starter Zack Wheeler — who had a 1.15 ERA in his previous six starts — for five runs in the first two innings and added two more runs in the sixth after Wheeler was pulled.
A call reversal in the first inning set up the Cubs’ first three runs. On a line out by Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant was originally called out at second in what would have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, he was ruled safe upon review and then scored on Jason Heyward’s single. Nico Hoerner and Rafael Ortega followed with RBI singles before the inning was over.
Bryant left in the fourth with tightness in his right hamstring.
Anthony Rizzo’s at-bat in the second was interrupted by a 12-minute rain delay, but when play resumed, he hit an RBI triple, his third three-bagger of the season, then scored on a single by Contreras.