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Every win during the season technically counts the same, but in the last week of September in the midst of a race to hold on to a wild card spot, these wins feel like they carry more weight for the Cubs.
And this late in the season, different players have to step up to get those much-needed wins. In Saturday’s 6-3 victory over the Rockies, Javier Assad and Miles Mastrobuoni were the story.
Marcus Stroman returning to the rotation was the big news going into the game. He went on the injured list in early August because of a balky hip, and then his stay was extended thanks to a rib injury. Stroman came off of the IL on September 15, but he had only appeared as a reliever until Saturday.
David Ross said the decision to start Stroman Saturday was made earlier in the week, after Stroman got up in the bullpen during Wednesday night’s loss but didn’t get into the game. Stroman had petitioned to get back in the rotation, and timing-wise, Saturday lined up well.
“We used [Wednesday] as his bullpen, gave him a day off, figured he could start and we’d use him for as many leverage innings as we could get out of him,” Ross said before Saturday’s game.
The Cubs got three innings from Stroman, who started off with a perfect first frame but gave up three runs in the second and put two runners on base in the third. With Stroman at 64 pitches going into the fourth, Ross went to Assad.
Like he has all season, Assad stepped up when called upon, whatever his role might be. He tossed four scoreless innings, holding the Rockies in place while the offense chipped away at the three-run deficit and eventually took the lead in the seventh.
“He’s so valuable to this team and the versatility he gives you,” Ross said. “Being able to bring Javi behind him, he’s done a really good job of that pretty consistently this year. Having him in the bullpen is just such a weapon.”
Assad struck out six and gave up just two hits. His biggest strikeout came in the seventh, when he faced Kris Bryant with two outs, two runners on base and the game tied 3-3. Assad got Bryant looking at a 2-2 sinker to end the inning.
“That was huge,” Assad said of the Bryant strikeout. “That was a great pitch, just to be able to help the team and get out of a jam and keep the score down. That was great, a great pitch.”
Offensively, the Cubs got production from all parts of the lineup, but only Nico Hoerner and Mastrobuoni had more than one hit. Mastrobuoni, who went 2-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored, factored into important scoring opportunities in the fifth and eighth innings.
In the fifth, he singled, advanced on a wild pitch, and ended up scoring on Hoerner’s sacrifice fly to bring the Cubs within a run. And in the eighth, Mastrobuoni helped add an insurance run by drawing a walk, stealing second, and then scoring on a Hoerner single.
Mastrobuoni has been optioned four different times this season, and during his stretches in the majors, playing time has often been hard to come by. In late June, his batting average dipped as low as .133, and he was relegated to occasional duties. But since grabbing regular playing time over the last week, Mastrobuoni is hitting .471 with eight hits, six runs scored, and two stolen bases.
“I’m so proud of Miles and the adversity he went through early on. Being a role player, getting some opportunity, not getting off to the start he wanted,” Ross said. “Came back, played great, really well for us. Good defense, positive energy, worked his tail off and then got sent down when Nick came back. And then this last time coming up and not getting any opportunity, but he worked and kept a positive attitude.
“He’s a good baseball player. Hard-nosed, gritty guy that you love having on your team. He’s been really patient and worked his tail off and deserves all that’s coming to him.”
Mastrobuoni will likely have to keep factoring into more Cubs wins with seven games left and the team still in possession of the third wild card spot. Jeimer Candelario is eligible to return from the IL – he’s been shelved since September 12 with low back strain – but as of Saturday he was still doing general baseball activities without a clear timetable for return. Nick Madrigal has been down since the 17th with a hamstring sprain, so Mastrobuoni may have to keep holding things down at third base.
His play of late would likely have earned him that role anyway, especially with the Cubs needing every win over these last seven games. He’s come a long way from where things stood for him in the first half of the season.
“Sometimes struggling is the best teacher. You’ve got to learn throughout those times,” Mastrobuoni said. “It’s easy to kind of fall into a hole, and sometimes you want to, to be honest with you, but bouncing ideas off guys, talking with people. Just running through things, and every day coming in and trying to get better. During those times, not getting too much playing time, but still trying to get better.
“Coming down the stretch, you can’t have any hiccups. Just trying to do what I can to help this team win.”
The same goes for Assad, who stepped up for Stroman in the rotation in August and early September and then picked him up in Saturday’s win. Ross said the expectation for the last week of the season is that Stroman will make his next start and Assad will stay in the bullpen.
He sees Assad as a valuable weapon there, and Ross thinks there’s a chance Assad pitches a little better when he comes in on the attack out of the ‘pen, knowing that his outing will be a little shorter than a start. At this point, there are no plans to reserve Assad as a piggyback option for Stroman’s next start.
“We’re going to go for wins when we’ve got ‘em and figure it out each and every day,” Ross said.
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