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Of risks, rewards and workloads: The many sides of Cubs’ Brandon Morrow’s injury

PHOENIX — Could closer Brandon Morrow’s season-ending elbow injury have been prevented in June? Or was a pitcher with a long history of injuries just a bad-risk signing to begin with?

“I think he first felt it that one outing in New York,” team president Theo Epstein said of the 14-inning game Morrow finished after talking his way into a third consecutive day of pitching. “He was someone we were going to stay away from in that crazy game, and we came back and then he came in. That’s probably a lesson learned: Never stray away from the structure that we have for him no matter what’s going on in the game.”

Morrow’s workload pattern was mapped out before the season, with his injury history and last year’s deep playoff run with the Dodgers in mind.

After the Cubs scored six in the top of the 14th that night in New York, Morrow finished the game, facing three batters, using 15 pitches, and in subsequent days mentioned the soreness.

Morrow and catcher Willson Contreras after the final out of the Cubs' 14-inning victory in New York on June 2.

“It’s just so hard to say. The guy’s had problems in the past,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We had that long game, and he was the last man standing. The work wasn’t that heavy before that, so I just went along with it. It’s just so hard to tell if that’s the absolute jumping-off point or not. It’s impossible for me to say that.”

Two days earlier, Morrow threw just two pitches to get the final out of a win, then threw 17 pitches in a four-batter ninth the next day, setting the stage for the 14-inning game.

“He did say it bothered him after that, so you can’t dispute that,” Maddon said. “In situations like that it’s really hard to determine if that was a determining factor or if there were others leading up to that.”

Morrow last pitched July 15, his comeback effort eventually shut down this week after a setback. He’s expected to be at full strength again by spring training.

“I told [Morrow] that next year when he’s down he’s not going to be allowed to have his spikes on,” Epstein said. “We have to be really careful with his usage so we can have him at the most important time of the year.”

It’s hard to blame the manager in a case like this. Even many of Maddon’s critics might admit he’s done his best managing job in four years with the Cubs this season – considering the 2018 bust seasons of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, Kris Bryant’s long stretches on the DL and a 30-games-in-30-days stretch over the final weeks of the season.

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And Morrow, who hasn’t pitched a full season since 2011, missed most of the 2014, ’15 and ’16 seasons with forearm, finger and shoulder injuries.

“If in fact that was the reason, the moment that it did happen, it is unfortunate,” Maddon said of the June 2 game. “But that doesn’t mean he can’t clear himself of that in the future.”

Bullpen help

As expected, the Cubs called up right-hander Allen Webster, the former Red Sox and Diamondbacks pitcher, to help a depleted bullpen. Webster was signed to a minor-league deal in March.

They made room on the 40-man roster by transferring Morrow to the 60-day DL.

Rotation mutation

The Cubs are flip-flopping Jose Quintana and Jon Lester in the rotation, which means Quintana makes his first South Side start since last year’s trade in Friday’s opener of the crosstown series.

Lester gets an extra day, in part because of recent back spasms.

“His back’s fine; it’s just a proactive move,” Maddon said.