Lester’s Back, Schwarber’s Back, Morrow’s Not Back, Cubs’ Backs Against the Wall

Jon Lester had settled in after an inauspicious opening and was cruising along nicely in the 6th, facing only one more than the minimum after a single to Lorenzo Cain in the top of the 2nd. But when he landed somewhat clumsily following a strikeout of Jonathan Schoop, Lester’s seventh of the evening, it was evident that something wasn’t right.

Ever the gamer, Lester shooed Joe Maddon and team trainer PJ Mainville back to the dugout and remained in the game. He then allowed a single to Mike Moustakas and a double to Erik Kratz in the span of four pitches, wincing and fidgeting all the while. That prompted Maddon to remove his starter in favor of Carl Edwards Jr., who the skipper hoped could get an out and use the appearance as a springboard.

Instead, Edwards performed a painful belly-flop, uncorking a wild pitch that Brewers third-base coach Ed Sedar told Moustakas to be ready for. But the worst of it wasn’t the spiked curve on his first offering, it was Edwards’ complete obliviousness to the situation. As Willson Contreras frantically ran down the ball and Moustakas broke for home, the reliever was sort of skipping jauntily off the mound.

As big as both that mistake and the eventual loss were, though, the more pressing concern moving forward is Lester’s health.

“When I hit (in the 5th inning), I came back in and was fine and I went to stand up and it didn’t feel all that great,” Lester said after the game. “I don’t know if that was it, or Friday to today or what. I don’t think it’ll be anything that’ll stick around. I think we’ll be fine tomorrow.”

That sounds positive and it’s entirely possible that this was simply a one-off spasm that will be alleviated with minimal treatment and normal rest. Of course, that’s sort of the same song and dance we got when Brandon Morrow hit the DL back in mid-July with “biceps inflammation.” And the back is pretty tricky, since it’s not something you can really just stop using unless you’re chilling on an inversion table all day.

Kyle Schwarber has been feeling the effects of a stiff back since the Cubs traveled to Atlanta at the end of August to make up their postponed game from earlier in the season. He’s made five starts in left since then, but only two since September 3. Four of his last six games have consisted only of pinch-hitting duties, and Monday’s was no more than a decoy to spur the Brewers to use Josh Hader.

Wait, what?

“Schwarbs’ back is bothering him,” Maddon told reporters (subscription) after the game. “So he wasn’t going to hit anyway. That was easy, actually.”

Maddon’s referring to his decision to burn Schwarber for the express purpose of getting Craig Counsell to turn to his best reliever a little earlier than normal. It’s sort of like intentionally sacrificing a pawn — which is what Schwarber’s reduced to given the balky back — in the hopes of drawing a more important piece into the open. So Maddon was hoping to burn Hader out quicker to give the Cubs more opportunities at the end of the game.

Of course, that strategy backfired gloriously as the dominant lefty reliever struck out all six Cubs he faced on a total of 24 pitches. David Bote, who hit instead of Schwarber once Hader entered the game, went down on three pitches. Oh, how wonderful to have a reliever to whom you can turn to provide a stress free late inning or two.

The Cubs had done fairly well during the initial phase of Morrow’s DL stint, but overuse and lack of a true stopper have worn down that back end just as surely as the metal “C” in my wallet eventually eats through the back pockets of my cargo shorts. There’s still a chance they get their closer back, though the initial reaction to Morrow’s 25-pitch bullpen session does little to inspire confidence.

“He was optimistic in a sense,” Maddon said of Morrow’s demeanor Sunday in DC. “When I spoke to him afterward, the face was easy, a little bit of a smile, felt pretty good. Hopefully, it’s a good first step.”

Theo Epstein echoed similar optimism, but it all rings more than a little hollow if you ask me. Not that the Cubs should be out there expressing doubt in Morrow’s return, it’s just that they seem to be dancing around the topic with two left feet.

They’re allowing Morrow to dictate his timeline, since his availability is going to be largely dependent upon his ability to pitch through pain from the bone bruise/stress reaction in his right elbow. If he feels up to it, the next steps will likely be a more strenuous bullpen and a brief simulated game. As for getting back to live action, it’s hard to imagine Maddon doing much other than what he tried to do with Edwards Monday.

Morrow will need to be eased back into the mix, picking up an out or two in what would ideally be lower-leverage situations. Of course, the airtight division race means there’s really no such thing as an easy inning from here on out.

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