For Cubs, it all hinges on the rotation

May 19th, 2022

CHICAGO -- With Marcus Stroman working in isolation during his stint on the injured list, the Cubs had to get creative. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy set the pitcher up with a bucket of baseballs, a net to catch them and a device that has a grid of strings for the strike zone.

It was good enough to allow Stroman to stay on a throwing program until he was cleared to rejoin the team. After a few days back with the Cubs, Stroman will come off the IL for a start against the D-backs on Thursday, returning to a rotation that has been on a roll of late.

"We're excited to get him back," Cubs starter Drew Smyly said. "I'm sure he'll be great. I know he's anxious."

In a 3-2 loss to the Pirates on Wednesday, Smyly worked into the fifth inning, but was unable to sustain Chicago's recent string of strong starts. Still, the lefty generated weak contact for the most part and his work, combined with the rotation's collective showing over the past week-plus, allowed for a fresh bullpen to finish the task at hand.

And, really, the fact that Smyly's performance was the outlier over the past nine games is a testament to how strong the Cubs' staff has been as a unit. Entering Wednesday, the North Siders' rotation had a National League-low 2.18 ERA and MLB-best 2.77 FIP in the eight games going back to May 9.

"We're going to go as far as our starting rotation goes," Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. "I think that's said with every team. I feel like now, you don't want to give the excuse of the short Spring Training or anything. But you're starting to see guys get in their rhythm and not fall apart as quickly as maybe we were."

To Gomes' point, the Cubs' season has been disjointed in terms of the rotation's production. The group was hurt by the early absence of lefty Wade Miley, who only recently returned from the IL due to a left elbow issue that flared in the spring.

Besides Miley, right-hander Alec Mills (back) has been on the IL all season. Adbert Alzolay (initially in the rotation plans) has yet to appear due to a shoulder setback. Stroman was scratched from his scheduled start on May 8 and landed on the IL (no designation).

The Cubs won six of their first 10 games this season, while the rotation posted a 4.84 ERA. Then, things fell apart over the next 17 contests, in which Chicago lost 14 of 17 games. The starters as a group turned in a 5.56 ERA during that period.

"It's just now it's finally all coming together," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I think that's exciting from my seat."

The previous eight-game run included:

• Two strong starts from Kyle Hendricks, who got the rotation's stretch rolling with 8 2/3 shutout innings on May 9 in San Diego.

• Nine innings with just two runs yielded from Keegan Thompson, who moved out of his multi-inning relief role to open a pair of games.

• Miley's first two games back from the IL. In his second turn on Monday, the fast-paced lefty allowed one hit over seven shutout innings against the Pirates.

Justin Steele becoming the first Cubs pitcher to strike out 10 batters in a game since Hendricks on Sept. 18, 2020. The lefty did so in six frames Sunday in Arizona.

• Smyly working a season-high six innings on Friday in Arizona, where he pitched better than his line might indicate.

And while that was happening from one game to the next -- Chicago winning six of eight in the process -- Hendricks was convinced the group was experiencing some inter-rotation momentum.

"Totally. I totally believe that," he said. "You just build off each other. It's kind of that internal friendly competition in a way, but you just want to push each other to be better. So, you see the other guys doing well, it kind of picks up your game."

Miley echoed that sentiment.

"It's been fun to watch," he said. "You just want to continue to keep that streak going. And whoever's next, get in there and do the same thing. That's how you go on little runs. It's fun to be a part of."

Stroman was finding his own personal rhythm back on May 1, when he spun seven shutout innings in a win on the road against the rival Brewers. Come Thursday, the righty will hope the work he put in over the past 17 days can help him pick up where he left off, while keeping the rotation's solid stretch going.

"Just having everybody in this rotation coming back together," Hendricks said, "Stro coming back, now Wade back, it's just going to hopefully create that consistency we've been looking for."