Diving into the homestretch: Keys for the Cubs to finish the season strong

The Cubs opened a three-game series against the Diamondbacks on Friday.

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Nico Hoerner #2 of the Chicago Cubs is tagged out by Brendan Rodgers #7 of the Colorado Rockies after being caught stealing in the first inning at Coors Field on September 13, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.

Nico Hoerner #2 of the Chicago Cubs is tagged out by Brendan Rodgers #7 of the Colorado Rockies after being caught stealing in the first inning at Coors Field on September 13, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.

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PHOENIX – On Friday, the Cubs opened a series against the Diamondbacks, who are chasing them in the National League Wild Card standings. That three-game set gives them an opportunity to shake up the Wild Card race before a final two-week push that ends in Milwaukee against the NLCentral Division leaders.

The Cubs dropped the first game of the series 6-4 to Arizona, after lefty Justin Steele gave up six runs, on a pair of three-run homers, in six innings. It was the first time he’d allowed multiple home runs since July 16 against the Red Sox.

The Cubs have 14 games left in the regular season.

The Cubs occupy the second NL Wild Card spot, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Diamondbacks and Reds tied for the final spot. The Giants and Marlins are close behind, vying for a playoff berth. Even with the third Wild Card spot serving as a cushion, a skid in the last couple weeks of the season could spell elimination from the postseason altogether.

The division title, and likely home field advantage in a wild card series, aren’t completely out of reach either. The Cubs are 5 1/2 games back of the Brewers. But if they can make up ground before the final series of the season, those three games in Milwaukee could still decide the race.

Here are a few keys for the Cubs to finish the season strong:

Keep it up, rookie starters

Left-hander Jordan Wicks has four major-league starts under his belt. The Cubs have won all four games he’s started. He’s put together back-to-back quality starts and posted a 1.99 ERA.

“I’m going to enjoy this one tonight,” Wicks said after limiting the Rockies to one run in six innings Monday. “But then tomorrow we get back after it, and we prepare for the next one. Because at this point in the season, every one of these matters, and you can’t take too long and pat yourself on the back.”

Rookie Javier Assad, despite an uncharacteristic battle with command in his last start, has also been a stabilizing force. Since joining the rotation in early August, he’s recorded a 2.96 ERA in eight starts.

With Cy Young candidate Justin Steele leading the way and veterans Kyle Hendricks and Jameson Taillon adding experience, if Wicks and Assad can continue pitching the way they have, the rotation will be in good shape.

Step in, closer fill-ins

With closer Adbert Alzolay on the IL until at least the last week of the season, a few candidates have emerged as high-leverage options to supplement setup men Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather’s efforts.

Veteran right-hander Brad Boxberger has retired all six batters he’s faced since returning from an almost four-month stint on the IL. Right-hander Michael Fulmer’s velocity was down in his own return from the IL. But if that dip stemmed from the transition back without a rehab assignment, and not an underlying issue, Ross has long trusted Fulmer in late innings.

Side-armer José Cuas has also stepped in during tight games. Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski, who began the season in the rotation, provide valuable length out of the bullpen, but the Cubs have also used them in one-inning sprints. And now they have another multi-inning bullpen option: Marcus Stroman, who the team activated off the 15-day IL on Friday.

Keep adding on, hitters

If the Cubs offense could get on a hot streak, that would cut down on the number of stressful innings the bullpen has to cover.

Easier said than done, but when the offense has been at its best, it has driven up starters’ pitch count and run up the score against bullpens.

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner, when asked about takeaways from the Rockies series said: “just the importance, especially this time of year, of depth and relying on the entire roster. And I think that’s been a real strength of ours this season.”

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