Chicago Cubs reliever Adbert Alzolay again ready for big outs as a high-leverage reliever

MESA, Ariz. — Adbert Alzolay’s signature celebratory fist pump became the symbol of Chicago Cubs wins by the end of last season.

Alzolay’s first full season as a reliever took time to adjust to a new routine and for the Cubs to figure out how to best deploy him, eventually settling in as their closer. He learned how to adapt and what he needed to do to take care of his body in a relief role. Sometimes that meant figuring out how to get through an outing when physically not feeling 100%. Alzolay realized he had different weapons he could use to his advantage on the mound.

“As a reliever, not every day all of your pitches are going to be working the same,” Alzolay told the Tribune. “Being like, OK, I can work off my sinker today and then the next day I’m a little tired so my sinker doesn’t have as much velo as yesterday so I can rely on my slider more and use my fastball late in the count.

“I was able to figure out that balance and all the experience I gained from it. I was pitching in so many close games and facing the best hitters in every lineup, it was huge for me to go out and compete against the best of the best.”

Alzolay, 29, is expected to again play a key role in the Cubs bullpen after posting a 2.67 ERA and 22 saves in over 64 innings in 58 games. He spent the offseason working on his strength and conditioning, focusing on quick movements and less heavy weights to improve his explosiveness and mobility.

“We’re going to count on Adbert to get big outs, simple as that,” manager Craig Counsell said Sunday. “It’s not a surprise that he’s turned into a leverage reliever. All the ingredients probably make him best suited for that job of just how he carries himself, his confidence, wanting the big moment.

“The fact that he’s got some experience doing it, that is important. It is a job that’s a little bit different and we expect to continue to get big outs in big spots.”

Alzolay’s improvement versus left-handed hitters has turned him into a reliever the Cubs can trust no matter the matchup.

“You see a guy who’s really come into his own and really understands how good he can be at the back end of a game no matter what position he’s put into,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “He’s done fantastic.”

Counsell has not been inclined to name specific roles for the relievers or speculate who might get the call the first time the Cubs face a save situation. During his nine seasons in Milwaukee, Counsell typically had a go-to option in the ninth. Only twice, in 2018 (Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader) and 2022 (Hader and Devin Williams), did Counsell have more than one reliever record double-digit saves. Otherwise, the Brewers’ bullpen under Counsell featured a shutdown closer, from Francisco Rodríguez and Jeffress to Knebel, Hader and Williams.

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“I want you to be ready when I call your name, I need you to get three outs because that’s your job,” Alzolay said of Counsell’s message to him this spring.

Perhaps Counsell gets to the point where the bullpen roles naturally work themselves out and someone emerges as his reliable closer. From Alzolay’s perspective, he just wants to help the Cubs win. He preaches the same vision of connectedness that Counsell has emphasized, that the pitching staff collectively must work to get 27 outs. If those outs happen to come in the ninth for a save opportunity, Alzolay will be prepared.

It’s not lost on Alzolay, though, that the game’s biggest moment might happen in the seventh or eighth inning and that could instead be when the Cubs need him the most. It’s a lesson he learned last year that he is again embracing.

“Communication is really important in the bullpen because we have to know if a guy is feeling a little banged up today, I can be honest and say, ‘you know what I can go one-plus today because I know my guy is going to be down,'” Alzolay said. “As a whole, we’re separate from the team, like, we’re only eight guys (in the bullpen) so everyone knows what you have to do out there.”