There were moments Tuesday night at Wrigley Field when it was apparent why the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins are positioned to draft within the top 10 picks next year.
Draft order rather than the postseason is on the line in the two-game series, which began with a 9-5 Cubs loss that required 13 pitchers and 353 pitches in a 4-hour, 5-minute game on a chilly, windy night. It kicked off the Cubs’ final homestand of the season — and prompted these three thoughts.
1. Alec Mills has made a case for being in the 2022 rotation.
As the Cubs figure out an approach to upgrading their roster, addressing the pitching staff — and specifically the rotation — is expected to be a significant factor. Right-hander Alec Mills is one piece that figures to fit in some way.
Before Tuesday’s game, manager David Ross was asked whom he would feel comfortable penciling into next season’s rotation. After immediately naming Kyle Hendricks, Ross mentioned Mills has “made a pretty strong case for a guy that you can count on and a reliable starter.”
Mills’ performance lately isn’t helping him finish what had been an otherwise strong stint in the rotation. He surrendered seven runs (six earned) in four-plus innings against the Twins. The rough night is part of a six-start stretch in which he has a 6.34 ERA. That followed a solid two-month run that saw Mills post a 3.35 ERA.
“Some spots where he’s given some free passes, which is uncharacteristic of him, here and there, making sure he stays on the attack,” Ross said. “He’s pitched pretty decent. Tonight hasn’t been his best, but other than that I thought he’s done a pretty nice job.”
Whether Mills opens 2022 in the rotation or as a multi-inning reliever/spot starter, he’s a valuable arm. Every organization wants as much pitching depth as possible, especially someone with a track record of providing five or six quality innings.
The Cubs know what they have in the 29-year-old Mills, but with one or two starts left, a good ending won’t hurt his cause. Mills, though, is trying not to think too far ahead.
“This is my first full big-league year, so for me to get through that and grind through that, obviously the last few (starts) haven’t been what I’ve hoped for,” Mills said. “But let’s finish on a strong note, be a cornerstone maybe for what’s going to happen next year.”
2. Willson Contreras is getting hot heading into an interesting offseason for the veteran catcher.
Rookie infielders Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom have garnered plenty of attention over the past few weeks, bright spots in a disappointing season for the Cubs.
While plenty of players from Triple A have received opportunities to showcase their big-league potential, catcher Willson Contreras remains a key cog in the lineup and in the clubhouse. His 14-pitch, pinch-hit walk sparked the Cubs’ comeback win Sunday in Milwaukee, and he remains an imposing figure in the lineup despite his season numbers sitting slightly below his career figures.
“Willson’s swinging the bat really well, and that at-bat just emphasized that when he’s on pitches, his timing’s really good, and you could definitely see that carry forward,” Ross said Sunday. “Hopefully the off day doesn’t mess him up too much. Some of those guys get too much rest and that’s not good.”
Any concerns a day off Monday would disrupt Contreras’ rhythm were unfounded. He went 2-for-3 with a home run and two RBIs on Tuesday. In the past week, Contreras is 6-for-19 (.316) with three home runs and six RBIs.
It’s leading into an interesting offseason for the Cubs and Contreras, who will be a free agent after the 2022 season.
“What he brings every day is special,” Mills said. “The intensity he brings and the emotion and everything, it’s nice to have a guy back there that’s been through a lot before and it’s kind of a familiarity thing. He’s the rock. He’s the one that’s been here this whole time, and obviously he’s getting going right now.”
3. Jon Lester recorded a milestone win before returning to Wrigley Field.
Seven of the Cubs’ final 12 games, including Tuesday’s loss, are against a team with a winning record — and they all feature the same opponent.
The Cubs have an opportunity to thwart the St. Louis Cardinals’ bid to secure the National League’s second wild card, beginning with a four-game weekend series to wrap their home schedule at Wrigley. They won’t have to worry about also trying to prevent former Cubs left-hander Jon Lester from reaching a career milestone.
Lester recorded his 200th career victory Monday for the Cardinals, tossing six innings and holding the Milwaukee Brewers to two runs. Ross watched the game on TV and was happy his former batterymate hit the mark.
Ross said those on the coaching staff and in the organization who have been around Lester had been following his progression to 200 wins, seven of which came with the Washington Nationals and Cardinals this year. He won 77 games during six seasons with the Cubs.
“I rooted for the red team (Monday) and that felt really strange,” Ross said. “That was special.
“Definitely (was) hoping he got it before he got here. I definitely didn’t want that kind of mixed emotions of, like, all the losses stink on my end, but it probably would have stunk a little bit worse if he would have gotten it here. But now we can really go all-in on kicking his butt.”
If Lester stays on schedule, he will start Saturday against the Cubs. He already faced his former team once this season after departing in the offseason, taking the loss May 17 for the Nationals after the Cubs tagged him for five runs on eight hits in 5⅓ innings.
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Chicago Cubs' Ian Happ blows a bubble after striking out with the bases loaded to end the the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Cubs' Willson Contreras celebrates his home run off Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Griffin Jax during the third inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Cubs' Willson Contreras watches his home run off Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Griffin Jax during the third inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)