Back in spring training when the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen picture was still fuzzy, manager David Ross said he never felt the need to label anyone as his closer.
When you don’t have a closer, you can’t have a closer controversy.
Still, it was assumed veteran Michael Fulmer would inherit the role based on his recent experience closing games, and that generally was how the season unfolded in April.
But 2 1/2 months in, the look of the back end of the bullpen has changed dramatically. It now appears Adbert Alzolay has taken the closer’s role and run with it.
Or has he?
“He’s at the back end of our game, for sure,” Ross said Monday before the Cubs’ 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Is he our closer? You could say at the moment, if it matches up best … him and (Mark) Leiter, we’ve kind of flipped through those pockets. It just seems to be as of late, Leiter’s pocket has been coming in the eighth.”
It’s understandable if Ross doesn’t want to mess with success. But no one wants to call Alzolay the Cubs’ “back end of the game reliever depending on the pockets” guy, especially when the word “closer” is so much shorter and easier to remember.
Perhaps “de facto closer” works better. However you refer to him, Alzolay said he just wants to show he can do the job.
“To be honest, I do enjoy doing it,” the 28-year-old Alzolay told the Tribune before Monday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “I like feeling that kind of adrenaline. I really like big moments. For me, coming in the ninth inning and winning by one run, it gets me really excited out there.”
The Cubs didn’t need Alzolay on Monday in another romp over the Pirates, whom they have outscored 36-11 in their four games since June 13. Drew Smyly (7-4) scattered five walks over five shutout innings, and the bullpen contributed four more scoreless frames. Mike Tauchman drove in three runs with three hits, and the Cubs won for the eighth time in 10 games to move to within four games of .500 at 34-38.
Alzolay has three saves and one hold over eight appearances since May 26, allowing no runs over 8 1/3 innings and limiting opposing hitters to a .148 average. With Leiter and Julian Merryweather also solidifying their late-inning roles in high-leverage situations, the Cubs have the makings of a dominant trio at the end of games.
Leiter ranked ninth among relievers Monday with 13.65 strikeouts per nine innings, while Merryweather was 15th at 12.76 Ks per nine. The Cubs bullpen posted a 3.78 ERA in June following a 5.19 ERA in May. Alzolay’s emergence has allowed the rest of the bullpen to settle into more defined roles.
“We’ve seen Adbert kind of embracing that role in the back end, thriving there for a little while now,” Ross said. “You could also point to Merryweather and the job he’s done in the seventh. It feels like he’s closing some things out to get us to the back end guys, been a nice bridge.
“You’re right. I don’t like to label (guys), but as you see things shake out, Adbert’s done a really nice job on the back end.”
Only one year ago Alzolay’s career was seemingly in limbo after being hyped as one of the first real starting prospects to make it from the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era. He suffered a right shoulder strain before arriving at spring training in 2022 that sidelined him for several months.
Alzolay didn’t pitch in the majors until Sept. 17, at which point no one was paying much attention to the Cubs. He was mostly used as a multi-inning reliever, which figured to be his role this season as well. But Ross has used him one inning or less in 10 of his last 11 outings since Alzolay began to establish himself as a back-end reliever.
As Cubs fans know well, Alzolay wears his emotions on his sleeve and celebrates getting big outs with a joie de vivre that seemingly rubs off on the rest of the team.
Could he still be the same pitcher without showing any emotion at all?
“I feel like I need to balance my emotions within the game,” he said. “I feel that now I’m being calm through the whole inning, and then letting my emotions out at the end. That’s helped me balance things. Before, if I got a big strikeout with no outs or one out, I would get so fired up I’d start to lose my focus to the next hitter. So I try to manage that better this year.”
Fulmer also has improved after a rocky start with the Cubs, and has provided Alzolay with advice on the intricacies of being in the closer’s role. Like Alzolay, Fulmer was a starter who transitioned to the bullpen, where he found a home.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Alzolay said. “I’ve been talking to him since the beginning of spring training about how he did it, and then taking a bigger role later in the year. You can hear all the tips and this and that, but you’ve got to go through it first. Once you go through it the first time and know you’re able to do it, it gives you more confidence.
“I already have all the confidence of what I can do with all my pitches. It’s just a matter of doing it late in the game.”
Like any closer, Alzolay is bound to go through some struggles as he navigates his way through the season. Ross might even go the rest of the year without naming him the closer.
As long as he gets the job done, any label will suffice.
Source: Berkshire mont