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Say it ain’t so, Joe: Maddon admits Cubs’ Brandon Morrow may be lost for season

MILWAUKEE — Not “when,” but “if.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon used the latter word Wednesday in reference to the potential return of closer Brandon Morrow this season. It was the first acknowledgment from the Cubs that the right-hander simply may not be on board as the team attempts to navigate its way back to the World Series.

“That’s not inaccurate,” Maddon said. “At this point of the year, and he’s been out for a bit and we’re still not on the mound yet?

“[There are] 25 more days in the month. It’s hard to really get him up to speed because you have to talk about building the arm strength up, seeing hitters, throwing, a day off, throwing again, whatever, and just to be cautious regarding consecutive appearances or how many pitches he’s going to throw. So there is a lot to consider yet.”

Cubs closer Brandon Morrow, who has been on the disabled list since July 18. (AP)

Morrow, 34, has been on the disabled list since July 18 due to inflammation in his biceps. The Cubs’ 6-4 victory over the Brewers in the finale of a series at Miller Park was his 46th game missed since signing a two-year, $21 million free-agent contract in the offseason.

Pedro Strop pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his 10th save in 12 chances since Morrow went down, but it was dicey after he walked Travis Shaw and allowed a single to Christian Yelich to start the frame. The right-hander bid the sweep-minded Brewers good night with a strikeout of Curtis Grandson to end the game.

Morrow has been outstanding when healthy, converting all but two of his 24 save opportunities and posting a 1.47 ERA. But the Cubs had visions of the postseason when they signed him to be the successor to Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis. More specifically, they hoped Morrow could do for them in 2018 what he did for the Dodgers in 2017, when he made 14 postseason appearances and pitched in all seven games of the World Series.

That memorable run included 4‰ dominant innings — no runs, one hit, seven strikeouts — over four appearances in the NLCS against the Cubs.

Instead, Morrow could be going the way of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood as a third free-agent disappointment from the 2017 class. If the Cubs end up with none of the above on their playoff roster, they will have put the “off” in “offseason” in resounding fashion.

A week ago, Morrow said he was “optimistic” about a September return. He has been playing long toss, but climbing atop a pitcher’s mound is another story — there has been none of that whatsoever.

Would there be time left to get him going even if his rehab were accelerated immediately?

“Barely,” Maddon said.

As heavily as the Cubs leaned on Chapman and Davis the last two postseasons, do they have the arms in the bullpen for a World Series run without Morrow?

That’s probably the more important question now. Maddon points to his 2008 Rays, who won the AL pennant without a clear full-time closer, as an answer. Also, the 2017 Astros won it all by playing the matchup game with their bullpen.

“I don’t think you need [a full-time closer],” Maddon said. “I don’t think you need to ado that.”

Onward the Cubs go with Strop as the closest thing they have to a No. 1 option to finish games. There likely will be save opportunities — based on matchups — sprinkled in for Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr. and Jesse Chavez, or at least a combination thereof.

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No one knows yet exactly how the playoff bullpen will look if Morrow isn’t in it. Even an 11th-hour veteran addition or two could come into play. Drew Smyly — nearing the finish line of his recovery from Tommy John surgery — and newcomer Jaime Garcia threw live batting practice here Tuesday.

“I told them, ‘Hey, whatever you guys feel like I can contribute to this team and win some ballgames, I’m here for that,’ ” said former longtime Cardinals starter Garcia, a 32-year-old lefty who got his first taste of bullpen life with the Blue Jays this season. “So I pretty much made myself available for anything they need.”

The Cubs have a bullpen full of relievers who feel precisely that way.