When my wife and I started dinner and feeding our daughter Wednesday night, it was a 1-0 game between the Pirates and Cubs. But by the time I started to wash up the dishes, Chicago found itself in an 8-1 hole and Justin Steele's night was done.
A critical fifth inning, headlined by an Ian Happ grand slam and Christopher Morel home run, pulled the Cubs back to within a pair at 8-6, but the Pirates answered right back with three more runs in the top of the sixth off the usually reliable Mark Leiter Jr. Any time your starter lasts just three innings, you're asking a lot of the pen - but it just feels like this group is running on fumes with a little over a week left in the regular season.
Chicago enters Thursday's finale against the Pirates a full 7 games back of the Brewers, who have the NL Central crown in the bag at this point, and a half-game advantage over Miami and a one-game edge over Cincinnati for the third and final wild card berth. The next four games - all at Wrigley against sub-.500 teames - are critical given the Cubs close out the year on the road in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
Cubs keep searching for answers in a depleted bullpen
But it's going to take all hands on deck - and guys stepping up - if they're going to play postseason baseball for the first time since 2020. Without Adbert Alzolay or Michael Fulmer, possibly for the rest of the season, David Ross has had to re-think his daily approach with the bullpen, which looked stretched on Wednesday, to put things mildly.
The next man up in the pecking order, typically, would be Leiter - but he hasn't been himself for awhile now. As our friends at Bleacher Nation point out: without his signature splitter, Leiter Jr. is nowhere near the same guy and we saw that play out on Wednesday.
Hacking off your top three bullpen arms (Alzolay, Fulmer on the IL and Leiter clearly working through some stuff) leaves you in a precarious spot. And when it comes to the Cubs, the margin for error is nonexistent at this point. Either some guys like Jose Cuas, Daniel Palencia and Hayden Wesneski step up or this season is going to draw to a close sooner than we'd all like. It's that simple.