Entering a game in the early innings to relieve a struggling starter is never an ideal spot for a reliever.
But that was the situation Alec Mills faced Tuesday when he was called on to start the fourth inning in the Chicago Cubs’ 9-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. And as Mills noted afterward, “That’s why I’m here.”
Hours after coming off the 60-day injured list, Mills tossed five innings and allowed two runs, one walk and struck out six.
Mills’ strong outing in his season debut allowed manager David Ross to rest a bullpen that before Monday’s day off had been worked hard during a stretch of 11 games in nine days, including two that went to extra innings.
“I really wanted to finish the game,” Mills said. “I felt good. I didn’t really feel like I ran out of gas too much, so that was a big positive for me.”
Mills’ rehab process had him building up for a starter’s workload. The bulk work became important after Keegan Thompson lasted only three innings. The Orioles tagged Thompson for seven runs and three homers.
Christopher Morel gave the Cubs a quick lead, homering on the first pitch of the game. The Orioles erased it in the bottom of the inning, however. Morel added an RBI triple while Willson Contreras hit his 10th home run of the season.
With the homer, Contreras recorded his sixth season of double-digit home runs, tying Jody Davis for second in franchise history among catchers. Gabby Hartnett had 12 such seasons.
Mills is prepared for any role on the pitching staff. For now, the right-hander is back in the bullpen. Right-hander Anderson Espinoza was optioned to Double-A Tennessee as the corresponding move Tuesday.
Ross called Mills a “Swiss Army knife” who could be used in a variety of roles out of the bullpen.
“It was nice to have him back,” Ross said. “I’ve spoken highly about how many options he can give us — starter, out of the pen. He had starter-like stuff tonight, went deep, picked us up.”
Monday represented the first day players on the 60-day IL could return. The Cubs’ day off shifted that opportunity to Tuesday.
Infielder David Bote appeared to be another candidate to rejoin the team. However, Bote has been pulled from his rehab assignment. He was experiencing bouts of dizziness and is getting checked out. Bote was working back from offseason surgery on his left shoulder.
A trio of players on the IL — Seiya Suzuki, Yan Gomes and Jonathan Villar — took early batting practice Tuesday, getting in on-field work before rain forced the remaining pregame work inside. Ross wants to make sure Suzuki (sprained left ring finger) and Gomes (left oblique strain) in particular get enough reps before returning.
If they make it through Thursday’s day off feeling good, they could return for the weekend series in New York against the Yankees.
“We’ve got some off days here we should take advantage of just to make sure they’re 100%,” Ross said.
Suzuki still has some swelling in his finger, but he could play through that if it lingers. As Ross put it: “Everybody plays through a little bit.”
Ross, though, wants to make sure Suzuki feels 100% comfortable swinging the bat. A big factor in Suzuki going on the IL was the painful vibrations on non-barreled balls when hitting in the cage.
“He still feels it, and there’s a little bit of hesitation there,” Ross said. “We want to make sure we get that out of there before it just lingers.”
While Ross’ focus was on getting the Cubs off to a strong start on the five-game trip, he felt for his former manager Joe Maddon, whom the Los Angeles Angels fired Tuesday. Ross, who played for Maddon with the Cubs in 2015 and 2016, texted him after hearing the news and told Maddon he was thinking of him.
“That’s a sucky thing to hear,” Ross said. “I love Joe. He has done a lot for me and was a great manager for me. I don’t know what’s going on in Anaheim from that standpoint, but thoughts go out to him.”
Maddon, 68, was 130-148 in his third year with the Angels. He led the Cubs to the postseason in four of his five seasons on the North Side, with the 2016 World Series title his crowning achievement His.
“I have a ton of respect for Joe, another man that I’ve learned a lot of baseball from,” Ross said. “A lot of my managerial philosophies and the way I handle things are a lot of the example he set when he was my manager.”