How Cubs’ Marcus Stroman ended up starting against the Rockies on Saturday

Stroman allowed three runs in three innings in his first start back from the IL.

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Chicago Cubs starter Marcus Stroman delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Chicago.

Chicago Cubs starter Marcus Stroman delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Chicago.

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The inflection point that led to Marcus Stroman’s surprise start Saturday came three days earlier, when he warmed up to come out of the bullpen but never made it into the game.

Manager David Ross had hoped his team was about to close the gap against the Pirates, but instead they fell further behind. And Stroman sat back down.

Stroman had been back from the injured list for six days at that point, and he’d thrown a total of three innings, in back-to-back games against the Diamondbacks last weekend.

“We were talking about, ‘OK, how can we keep him stretched out?’ ” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Sun-Times before the Cubs’ 6-3 victory over the Rockies on Saturday. “ ‘How can we keep him to use him in spots we want to, but also not go where he doesn’t pitch for three to four days.’ So that’s kind of where we’re at.”

Stroman’s workload still was limited in his first start back from the IL (fractured rib cartilage). His 64 pitches got him through three innings — although Ross said he thought Stroman probably had a couple more batters in him. In the second inning, his pitch count increased, and he allowed three runs.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to be back in routine and feel the energy of the crowd,” Stroman said. “I felt pretty good, to be honest with you. It felt like I didn’t make some quality pitches in the second inning, but overall, for not being out there for a while, I felt really good.”

Stroman retired all three batters in the first. He gave up some hard contact in the second, but some hits found holes.

Former Cub Kris Bryant’s leadoff double — after a standing ovation from the crowd — bounced off the center-field wall. But Elias Diaz’s bloop RBI single fell into a patch of unmanned grass in shallow center.

Ezequiel Tovar smoked a grounder up the middle so hard that it continued into center field after second baseman Nico Hoerner got a glove on it, sending Diaz to third. He’d score on a wild pitch.

One out later, Brenton Doyle was almost thrown out trying to advance to second on a line drive into the left-center-field gap that scored Tovar. Hoerner fielded left fielder Ian Happ’s throw on the hop and put down a quick tag, but the ball popped out of his glove.

Stroman threw another scoreless inning in the third, navigating around a double and a walk.

In the fourth, with the Cubs trailing 3-1, Ross brought in right-hander Javier Assad, who threw four scoreless innings. Assad had moved to the bullpen to make room for Stroman in the rotation.

It was a similar scenario to the one the Cubs hoped to avoid when initially mapping out possible plans for Stroman. If the Cubs had started him Tuesday against the Pirates, for example, Ross said they “probably could expect, at most, three innings from him.” Assad would have been lined up to piggyback his start, shortening the bullpen for the next couple days.

The Cubs ended up using Wednesday, when Stroman warmed up but didn’t get into the game, like a midweek bullpen. They expected he’d be able to go longer Saturday than he would have earlier in the week. And no matter what happened, the off day Monday would give the Cubs more bullpen flexibility.

When the Cubs first activated Stroman off the IL and put him in the bullpen, they saw the move as a way to get him back without the expectation of high volume immediately — and with an opportunity to keep stretching him out.

“I told them, obviously, starting is always my first and foremost,” Stroman said. “That’s what I feel like I’ve been elite at for my entire career. Just coming into it, I didn’t want to mess up a flow of starters or anything, though. So they were aware of that, and they made the best decision that they could.”

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