Cubs’ lack of a closer forces manager David Ross to be creative

The Cubs’ walk-off loss to the Astros on Wednesday encapsulated their bullpen conundrum.

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The lack of a true closer has created headaches for Cubs manager David Ross.

The lack of a true closer has created headaches for Cubs manager David Ross.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Cubs manager David Ross called for left-hander Brandon Hughes to start warming up after Keegan Thompson gave up a first-pitch single to Yainer Diaz in the ninth inning Wednesday. The game was threatening to extend into the left-handed pocket near the top of the Astros’ batting order.

A two-run homer and a walk later, there was no reason to wait. Ross walked out to the mound to make the final pitching change in what would become a 7-6 walk-off loss Wednesday.

“We’ve got to win that game,” Ross said. “We’ve got to pitch better on the back end.”

The Cubs’ fifth consecutive loss encapsulated their bullpen conundrum.

Just starting to pry open their competitive window, the Cubs didn’t sign a bona fide closer in the offseason. So Ross was always going to be playing matchups at the back end of the bullpen. But entering the season, they were at least expecting Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger to take the eighth and ninth innings more often than not.

Boxberger has the most experience late in games, but mechanical issues stemming from an early groin injury seemed to play into a decline in performance. Now he’s on the 15-day injured list with what the team called a strained right forearm.

Fulmer was the closest thing the Cubs had to a closer early on. He also has been unlucky, as evidenced by a 4.30 FIP compared to a 7.50 ERA.

“Being candid, nobody’s really grabbed the back end of the bullpen role,” Ross said.

The Cubs were able to work around that early, and the bullpen outperformed expectations. But since the beginning of this month, Cubs relievers have posted a 5.28 ERA, the second-worst mark in the National League.

Without a closer, or even a back-end tandem, plotting out a bullpen plan and adjusting it in-game looks a little different.

“Working from the ninth backwards is usually how you do it when you have that luxury,” Ross said. “And right now, we’re just trying to leverage it in the seventh or in the eighth and throw our best guy, and we’ll get to the ninth and see who can hold that for us right now.”

The Cubs also have been working around other factors lately. Short starts have taxed the bullpen. Day-to-day recovery affects which relievers are available, especially after multi-inning outings, or even labored single-inning outings.

Flu-like symptoms have been going around, affecting reliever Adbert Alzolay — along with first baseman Trey Mancini and starter Justin Steele. And Hughes is managing left-knee inflammation, so Ross doesn’t want to “waste any bullets” by having him warm up and then sit back down.

Splitter-tossing Mark Leiter Jr. has established himself as the most reliable arm in late-inning, high-leverage situations, as well as a weapon against lefties. So Ross will save him for those situations, but that comes with its own balancing act.

“I don’t want to save my best pitcher too many times on the back end if we don’t get to the ninth with a lead,” Ross said before Wednesday’s game. “Got to start leveraging him maybe in the seventh if it comes up and we really need him.”

That’s what Ross did Wednesday in the eighth inning with the top of the order and a pocket of lefties coming up. But Leiter, who hadn’t pitched in a game in five days, looked rusty and gave up two runs.

ON DECK

CUBS AT PHILLIES

Friday: Marcus Stroman (2-4, 3.24 ERA) vs. Ranger Suarez (0-0, 6.75), 6:05 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM.

Saturday: Jameson Taillon (0-2, 6.66)

vs. Aaron Nola (3-3, 4.53), 3:05 p.m., -Marquee, 670-AM.

Sunday: Justin Steele (6-1, 2.44) vs. TBD, 12:35 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM.

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