September 27, 2022

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Leiter solid as fill-in for shorthanded Cubs

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LOS ANGELES — These are uncertain times for the Cubs’ rotation. With five starters on the injured list, Chicago turned to right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. to start the series opener at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night.

Leiter, who hadn’t made a start in the Majors since April 27, turned in a solid performance, but he was stung by the long ball in the Cubs’ 5-3 loss to the Dodgers.

At 31, Leiter is in the midst of a comeback attempt after not pitching in the big leagues for three seasons. Tommy John surgery kept him from taking the mound in 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic did the same in ‘20. He spent all of ‘21 in the Tigers’ Minor League system.

The 2022 season, meanwhile, has been up and down for Leiter in about every sense, as he’s bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the Majors, as well as between the Cubs’ rotation and their bullpen.

But when Alec Mills exited his July 2 start against the Red Sox with a lower back strain only one out in, Leiter was called upon out of the bullpen. He proceeded to deliver a clutch 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

That performance, paired with the sheer number of injuries to Cubs starters, earned Leiter a chance to rejoin the rotation, even if only temporarily.

Going up against a tough Dodgers lineup, Leiter was tagged for four runs in five innings, all of which came via homers. The first came quickly, as Mookie Betts took Leiter’s second pitch of the night over the wall in left-center field. Gavin Lux got Leiter the following inning with a no-doubt two-run blast to right, and Justin Turner added a solo shot in the fourth.

“I didn’t feel like I made a ton of bad pitches, but the ones I did, they made me pay for,” Leiter said. “So it’s just making sure that I try and limit the guys on base and just keep attacking, trying to get to two strikes and try to make them uncomfortable.”

Leiter managed to do that at times, as he only allowed two hits outside of the homers — both in the first two innings — and didn’t walk anyone while striking out four. He was also as deceptive as he’s been all year, recording a season-best 14 whiffs.

Cubs manager David Ross commended Leiter for settling down after the tough beginning.

“I think it’s just sometimes figuring out where your misses need to be and getting your release point as the game goes,” Ross said. “Starters have the luxury of doing that some, and it looked like he settled in a little bit.”

The question, then, is if Leiter will get another turn in Chicago’s rotation. Ross wasn’t ready to answer that question on Thursday night. But given the state of the Cubs’ staff, it seems all but certain that will be a necessity.

As of now, the Cubs’ starters for Saturday and Sunday remain to be announced. Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation) and Drew Smyly (right oblique strain) each threw bullpen sessions on Thursday and look to be nearing returns, but it’s possible one (if not both) of them will require another rehab start prior to being activated. Justin Steele, who would have been in line to start Saturday, is currently away from the team as he awaits the birth of his child, and it’s unclear how many days he’ll need before returning.

Then, there are the three pitchers who are less close to coming back. Although Kyle Hendricks’ MRI on his strained right shoulder came back clean, he’s expected to be out until after the All-Star break. Mills and Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) both have undefined timelines at the moment.

The other pitchers who have made starts for the Cubs this year are Matt Swarmer, who was moved to the bullpen in late June, and No. 6 prospect Caleb Kilian, who is with Triple-A Iowa but on the 40-man roster.

Beyond them, the options run pretty thin. Barring some unexpected quick injury returns, it seems likely Leiter will get another shot, even if it’s due to sheer necessity.

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