Cubs’ homegrown relievers were under-the-radar heroes of series win vs. Mariners

The Cubs’ walk-off and comeback wins this week wouldn’t have been possible without contributions from Adbert Alzolay, Michael Rucker and Keegan Thompson.

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The Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay pitches in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners on Monday.

The Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay pitches in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners on Monday.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Cubs’ big hits were the most obvious turning points in their series win against the Mariners this week. Nico Hoerner’s walk-off single and Nelson Velazquez’s go-ahead grand slam earned each of them the sheriff’s hat, a tradition that emerged this week.

Door-slamming performances by the team’s homegrown relievers flew more under the radar. But their teammates took notice.

“Our bullpen,” starter Hayden Wesneski said after allowing seven runs in 1⅔ innings Tuesday, “that made the difference, ultimately, today.”

The homegrown relievers weren’t the only ones with a strong series. Mark Leiter Jr., who has served as the team’s right-handed lefty specialist, pitched in back-to-back games and allowed just two baserunners in 1⅔ innings. But the trio of Adbert Alzolay, Michael Rucker and Keegan Thompson showed the value of middle relievers who are comfortable throwing both multiple innings and in leverage situations.

The bullpen shouldered the heaviest load on Tuesday. Wesneski battled command issues, and a pair of errors behind him in the second inning amplified his struggles and rendered five of the runs he was charged with unearned.

Rucker replaced him with the bases loaded and one out.

“Rucker coming in, in damage control, is huge,” Wesneski said. “It’s a really hard thing to do. Because you need to throw strikes, but you can’t give in. Because if you give in, then it’s a double and they score more runs. But if you pitch around them, then it’s a walk. And so it’s a really hard position I put him in.”

Rucker induced a ground ball to first base for the first out and then got out of the inning with a strikeout. He pitched two more innings and limited the Mariners to one more run.

“I was going to give the team as much length as I could to save the bullpen and keep the score where it was,” Rucker said.

He got more than he bargained for: a comeback push and a win.

Alzolay threw two scoreless innings after Rucker, pitching for the second night in a row. It was the first back-to-back in Alzolay’s major-league career, and he threw more than one inning in each game.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good, to be honest,” Alzolay told the Sun-Times. “My arm’s been responding well. You can start seeing early all the work that we did in the offseason trying to get through that routine real quick as a reliever.”

Over the course of two outings, Alzolay -retired all 10 batters he faced, keeping his pitch count low.

On Tuesday, the Cubs needed length from Alzolay while the game was still close. The day before, in a 3-2 walk-off win, Alzolay’s outing was just as high-intensity, as he protected the Cubs’ one-run lead through four outs in the sixth and seventh.

Veteran right-hander Michael Fulmer was the only reliever to give up a home run that game — Jarred Kelenic’s first homer of the series — which tied the score in the ninth.

Then, manager David Ross called on Thompson to take over in extra innings and give the offense a chance to get back that run.

Thompson has allowed only one run so far this season. He had to pitch out of a jam Monday to keep it that way and earn the win.

The Mariners were the first 2022 playoff team the Cubs played this season. Before the month ends, they also will face the Padres and play two series against the Dodgers.

“Having some success against these teams early on,” Thompson said, “could just build our confidence moving forward.”

CUBS AT DODGERS

Friday: Justin Steele (1-0, 0.75 ERA) vs. Noah Syndergaard (0-1, 6.30), 9:10 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM

Saturday: Jameson Taillon (0-2, 7.00) vs. Michael Grove (0-1, 14.73), 8:10 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM

Sunday: Drew Smyly (0-1, 6.52) vs. Julio Urías (3-0, 1.50), 3:10 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM

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