CHICAGO – The sinker that left the fingertips of Cubs righty Javier Assad did precisely what the pitch is intended to do. It appeared headed beyond the outer edge of the plate and Kris Bryant, understandably, opted not to swing at the two-strike offering.
And then there was an explosion of sound inside Wrigley Field.
At the last moment, the seventh-inning sinker zipped back into the zone and Bryant -- so often the hero in this old ballpark during the last run of playoff baseball here -- was frozen. The crowd erupted and Assad shouted and pounded his glove as he bounced back to the dugout, two runners stranded and crisis averted.
- Games remaining (7): vs. COL (1), at ATL (3), at MIL (3)
- Standings update: The Cubs (81-74) sit seven games behind the first-place Brewers (88-67) in the NL Central. In the NL Wild Card race, Chicago sits in the third and final spot. The Marlins (80-75), who have the tiebreaker given their 4-2 record in the season series, are one game behind the Cubs. The Phillies (86-69) are the top Wild Card seed, with a five-game lead over the Cubs, while the D-backs (81-73) sit in the second spot (a half-game up). Philadelphia and Arizona also own tiebreakers over Chicago.
“That was huge. That was a great pitch,” Assad said via team translator Fredy Quevedo, following the Cubs’ 6-3 comeback win over the Rockies on Saturday.
It was huge given not only the moment at hand, but the overall context. This is now a Cubs team playing with growing importance heaped upon each pitch, at-bat and game. Keep winning, and the October goal will become reality. Lose, and the grip Chicago has on a Wild Card spot will weaken.
As he has done for much of this season, Assad came out of the bullpen and was brilliant, stringing together four scoreless innings after an abbreviated return to the rotation for veteran Marcus Stroman. In an all-hands-on-deck scenario, Assad’s showing gave Chicago’s lineup the chance to chip away at an early Colorado lead to eventually find the win column.
“Assad’s been huge for us,” Stroman said. “He’s been incredible -- just to come in and be so dialed in each and every pitch. You just feel like when he’s on the mound right now, he gives us a great chance to win.”
This marked the seventh time this season that Assad logged at least three scoreless innings as a reliever. That tied a modern Cubs record for one season; he joins Dick Tidrow (1979), Don Elston (1960), Bill Henry (1958), Glen Hobbie (1958) and Vito Valentinetti (1956) in that unique category.
The latest effort by Assad helped a bullpen that is absent a few key contributors -- closer Adbert Alzolay and setup man Michael Fulmer are among those on the injured list -- and dealing with heavy workloads for a handful of others. Assad also offered manager David Ross a safety net for Stroman’s first start since July 31.
“He's so valuable to this team and the versatility it gives you,” Ross said. “Being able to bring in Javy behind [Stroman] was just, I mean, he's done a really good job of that pretty consistently this year. Having him in the bullpen, it's just such a weapon.”
When Stroman landed on the IL due to a hip issue at the end of July, Assad moved into the rotation following a stretch of nine relief outings with a 0.40 ERA in 22 1/3 innings. The right-hander has been solid out of the rotation (3.02 ERA in 10 starts) as well, but Stroman’s recent return from the IL (after sustaining a fracture in his right rib cartilage in mid-August) forced a change.
Stroman willingly took on a relief role when he was activated last week, but wanted to get back to his normal starter routine. Stroman warmed up in the ‘pen on Wednesday, but the game got out of hand against the Pirates and did not warrant him entering in relief. The Cubs treated that as a bullpen session, after which the decision was made to move him back to the rotation.
“We’re trying to maximize his innings,” Ross said. “The idea was to use him as best we can in leverage out of the ‘pen when we were short down there. Now, we'll try to leverage him as a starter.”
“I told them obviously starting was 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 just didn’t want to mess up a flow of starters or anything, though. They were aware of that and they made the best decision that they could going into it.”
Stroman allowed three runs in the second inning and ended with 64 pitches in his first start back, giving him a solid foundation to build off for his next outing. Assad’s performance gave the lineup time to get to work, culminating in a go-ahead sacrifice fly from Cody Bellinger in the seventh and a two-run outburst in the eighth.
Behind Assad, Julian Merryweather escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and Jose Cuas picked up an important save in the ninth.
“We’ve just got to be ready,” Assad said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we stay healthy and we stay ready for whatever situation to be able to help the team out with whatever is needed.”