Cubs short-handed and inexperienced but ‘competing’ as season comes to a close

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs started rookie right-hander Javier Assad on Friday against the Pirates. Behind him at second base was Esteban Quiroz, who made his major-league debut last week. At shortstop was Zach McKinstry, who has seized an every-day role with the Cubs after being stuck on the Dodgers’ bench for much of the first half of the season.

The list goes on. Jared Young, who served as the designated hitter, also made his big-league debut a week ago. Rookies Christopher Morel and Nelson Velazquez entered the game in later innings, and rookie Erich Uelmen came in to close the game.

That level of inexperience has been common in Cubs lineups in recent weeks. The absence of more established players has opened opportunities all over the field. Still, the Cubs swept the Mets last week and won a three-game series against the Marlins. They also lost a series to the Rockies.

With a 6-5 victory Friday against the Pirates, the Cubs went up 2-0 in the four-game series.

”I would love to be finishing this year with myself and Seiya [Suzuki] and Willson [Contreras] and Rafi [Ortega] out there,” said shortstop Nico Hoerner, whohas been sidelined almost two weeks with a strained right triceps. ”You want to see the full version of the team out there competing and finishing the year like that, but it’s just not the case of what’s happening. I think the guys that are out there are doing a really nice job competing.”

Contreras (sprained left ankle) has been on the injured list since early September. Suzuki has been in Japan awaiting the birth of his first child. Ortega is out for the rest of the season with a broken finger.

Less than two weeks remain in the regular season, but the Cubs have not yet ruled out Contreras and Hoerner returning. In the meantime, they are getting a look at a swath of players and evaluating which ones will be part of their plans for the ”next great Cubs team.”

In turn, players are getting their first taste of the big leagues. Quiroz, for example, played for adecade in the Mexican League and the minor leagues before his call-up last week. He has made an impact at the plate and in the field every time he has been in the starting lineup.

On Friday, not only did he add another diving play to his defensive highlight reel, but he drove in the go-ahead run with a line-drive single in the eighth inning.

Assad has stuck in the rotation for much of the month. He had a 2.53 ERA through his first five outings but has allowed four runs in each of his last two starts (one was unearned against the Pirates). He said he’s working through some mechanical issues in his lower half but felt an improvement Friday in comparison to his last start.

”I think that I’ve done a great job,” Assad said, looking over his season as a whole. ”I’ve left a pretty good impression. I’ve worked hard. . . . I’ve made certain adjustments, certain tweaks throughout the year. And I’m here.”

In the ninth, Uelmen worked out of a bases-loaded jam to notch the first save of his career.

Including this road trip to Miami and Pittsburgh, the Cubs face only one team with a record above .500 in their final five series. They end with home-and-home series against the Reds. So how are the Cubs making sure they keep their foot on the gas?

”It’s about the daily process with the work and how we come in and the expectations of how we play — running balls out, hitting the cutoff man,” manager David Ross said. ”Just the attention to the details and not letting that go anywhere.”

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