Merryweather gets save, but Cubs' bullpen is full of questions
A strong bullpen will be vital for the Cubs during the final week of the season, but it's as unsettled as it's been all season.
Julian Merryweather sprinkled some drama into Sunday's save, walking the first two batters before retiring the next three on two fly balls and a strike out. He went above 99 mph on two pitches to final batter Ryan McMahon.
"There's really no place like Wrigley with the day game and the playoff push we're on right now," Merryweather said. "It's one of the most electric atmospheres I've pitched in in my career, so it's a pretty cool experience. I try to enjoy it every time I'm out there."
One goal this week might be to avoid the temptation to use Merryweather too often, with closer Adbert Alzolay still on the injured list and Mark Leiter Jr.'s status unclear. Leiter hasn't pitched since Wednesday against Pittsburgh and, when asked after the game if the right-hander's not completely healthy, manager David Ross responded, "You can write whatever."
If Leiter was feeling good, he would have pitched this weekend -- that much is safe to say. Merryweather is 31, but this has been his MLB breakout season. He's at 69 innings pitched, more than he worked during three seasons combined with Toronto.
"(I feel) good," Merryweather said. "I think the body's been prepared for it and it's been a grind staying consistent a little bit. But overall, I'm in a good spot."
Drew Smyly was warming up when Merryweather walked the first two batters in the ninth inning. Alzolay is hoping to come back from a right forearm strain, but it may not happen during the Atlanta series. Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger are not expected to return from forearm strains this season.
"I don't know if we've set a timeline for Adbert, but we'll see how the bullpen turns out, then kind of go from there," Ross said. "I know he's felt really good with the fastball. He's trying to get that slider shape back, that's kind of what we're waiting on."
Infielder Jeimer Candelario (back) warmed up before Sunday's game and the Cubs hope he'll be activated Tuesday in Atlanta.
The Cubs announced their pitching rotation for the Atlanta series: Justin Steele on Tuesday, Jameson Taillon on Wednesday and Marcus Stroman on Thursday.
Ross said the rotation is set through the weekend, which suggests it will be Kyle Hendricks, Jordan Wicks and Steele, if necessary, next weekend in Milwaukee.
The Cubs will not see Spencer Strider, Max Fried or Charlie Morton during the three-game series in Atlanta. The Braves listed Bryce Elder as Tuesday's starter, followed by two undecideds.
Around the horn:
Javier Assad was the first relief pitcher in the majors this season to throw at least 4 scoreless innings with no walks, 2 or fewer walks and 6-plus strikeouts Saturday. The last Cubs player to post that type of stat line was Marcos Mateo in 2011. ... Cubs catcher Yan Gomes collected his 500th career RBI on Saturday. He's one of just four active catchers to hit that number, and added 2 more RBI in Sunday's game. ... The official attendance at Wrigley Field this season was 2,775,149. That's the highest total since 2019, but the Cubs have crossed 3 million 12 times in the 2000s.