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A year ago, Adbert Alzolay made it clear that, if he did become a full-time member of the bullpen, one role stood out above the rest for him.
“Throwing the ninth inning,” Alzolay told CHGO during a conversation at the 2023 Cubs Convention. “I feel that that can be huge.”
Now, a year later, Alzolay’s desire to close out each and every game has turned into him being firmly in the driver’s seat to claim the closer job for the 2024 Cubs.
He didn’t get the shot right away last year, though. He didn’t even get his first save opportunity until May 6, as veteran relievers Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger took the bulk of those early save situations. But when neither was able to lock down the job, Alzolay got the chance to step in.
For most of his life, he had been a starter. That remained the plan as Alzolay moved through the system and eventually debuted in the big leagues. But he didn’t have a ton of consistent success his first few seasons with the Cubs, and after missing nearly all of 2022 due to injury, relieving became his new path.
But having only pitched in six games at the end of the season before, the beginning of 2023 still felt like a time where he was feeling things out as a reliever.
“I was starting my whole life,” Alzolay said. “That was the only thing I did for 11 years. I’ve never thrown back to backs before. I’m like, I don’t know if my velo is gonna be the same pitching from a night game to a day game. It was all these kind of random thoughts on my mind. But I just feel like you get that mindset and you prepare for that, and then you just gotta embrace it.”
Once the time did come to move into the closer role, Alzolay was lights out.
He converted 22 of his first 23 save opportunities on the year from May 6 through Aug. 29. During that time, he held a 2.44 ERA and owned a 26.2 percent strikeout rate compared to a 3.5 percent walk rate.
Though he ended up with blown saves his next two times out, he’d overall produced the kind of sustained success that made him the anchor of the Cubs’ bullpen.
“It feels right,” Alzolay said. “Just getting used to it, having the opportunity to go pretty much almost every day out there and pitch for this team in the ninth inning, it means a lot to me. It’s just, you get that feeling through your body, you get all the adrenaline rushing in the big moment. I just feel like that’s what I play for. I feel like that’s the only reason why I do what I do is because that’s the only feeling I want to get. I don’t want to be just chilling in there. I want to feel the pressure of the game.”
And with all that success came plenty of opportunities for that fist-pump celebration that has become his signature move after closing out Cubs wins.
“The first time I did it, it just came out like that,” Alzolay said. “Everyone loved it, so all the guys were like, ‘You can’t stop now. You need to keep doing it.'”
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last the rest of the season.
A right forearm strain put him on the shelf for nearly three weeks in September. The Cubs were without their top backend reliever during the most critical stretch of their season, which certainly played a role as the bullpen faded during the collapse that cost the team a playoff spot.
“It really, really hurt me,” Alzolay said of sitting on the sidelines during that stretch. “I was so frustrated, because I’m like, ‘There’s six more games. I need to be out there. Just let me go and play.’ You’re seeing the guys just going at it every single day. [Julian] Merryweather carrying the load, [Mark] Leiter [Jr.] carrying the load when me and Fulmer went down. It’s just like, you’re there and you don’t know what to do. It really kills you.”
Despite the rough end to his and the Cubs’ season, Alzolay has maintained a positive outlook on everything.
He feels he’s gained more of an understanding on how to keep his body right in his new role. He didn’t go and overhaul his offseason work, because after a full year in the role, he’s got a much better idea of what it takes to get through the marathon of a 162-game season.
“Last year was my first time going through it, and now, I know what to expect,” Alzolay said. “I know what to expect to be a high-leverage-situation guy. I know what it takes to be six months out there and be pitching at least every two days or something like that. I feel that now that I got that kind of experience and I know how I feel, I know how to control all those things throughout the season better.”
For now, it feels like Alzolay has earned the first crack at being the Cubs’ closer in 2024. He opened eyes with his performance in 2023, and now it’s seemingly his job to lose.
Again, it’s not the role he initially envisioned himself in when he was making his way to the majors. But now that he’s had a full season’s taste of it, it’s the role he wants to keep.
“I embraced it, and I really like what I’m doing right now,” Alzolay said. “It just really gets the best out of me all the times that I go out there for the biggest moment.”
Check out the rest of CHGO’s interview with Adbert Alzolay below to hear him talk his reaction to the Craig Counsell hiring, the Cubs’ late-season playoff race and more.
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