After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

After 'Murphy's Law' strikes bullpen, Cubs searching for answers at pivotal point in season

A year ago, Theo Epstein was putting the finishing touches on his "disguise" and getting ready to sit with his front office buddies in the Wrigley Field bleachers.

The Cubs clinched the division on Sept. 15 last season but this year, they woke up on the same date getting ready for a battle with the St. Louis Cardinals with plenty still to be decided in the National League Central.

Instead of planning for a celebration, the Cubs were tasked with trying to find some answers for a bullpen with a plethora of question marks.

There's Justin Wilson, the left-handed flamethrower and former Tigers closer acquired from Detroit ahead of the trade deadline who has struggled with his command since donning Cubs blue.

Then there's Hector Rondon, who has elbow inflammation — though no structural damage — and has been shut down indefinitely. 

And of course there's 42-year-old Koji Uehara who has an infection in his knee and his status is up in the air.

Even with expanded rosters, Epstein, Joe Maddon and the rest of the Cubs front office and coaching staff have their hands full trying to figure out how to solidify the bullpen in the final two-plus weeks of the season. 

That's a big reason why the Cubs called up young pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng for his big-league debut Thursday night against the New York Mets, moving Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen in hopes of giving Maddon another reliable option with an all-important three-game set against St. Louis looming.

"If you look at the Cardinals games that we play, a lot of those games that we play are decided in the late innings in the bullpen," Epstein said before Friday's 8-2 win over St. Louis. "It was sort of an educated gamble — of all the games the rest of the season, that was the game we could maybe win and allow us to have an extra weapon out of the 'pen for the big games this weekend. 

"They're all big; we weren't doing that to lose the game. We wanted to win the game and have Monty available and it ended up working out."

Epstein and Co. knew it was a gamble, but the Cubs offense helped smooth things over by going off for double digit runs for the second consecutive night against the Mets.

Just like the Mets are a cautionary tale of how fickle pitching health is, the Cubs know all too well how fragile a bullpen can be, both in terms of health and performance.

"Bullpens go through peaks and valleys and we're in a valley right now, which is unfortunate because this is the time of year you wanna be clicking on all cylinders," Epstein said. "That can change quickly. You get one or two guys locked in, one guy throwing strikes, another guy feeling better with his stuff, next thing you know, you look up and you're in good shape.

"I think it's kind of a Murphy's Law type thing right now with our 'pen. But we can turn it around in a hurry."

The Cubs ranked 12th in baseball with a 4.00 bullpen ERA entering Friday's game, when they accounted for 4.1 shutout innings. Wilson got the first of those 13 outs after starter John Lackey was unceremoniously ejected from the game in the fifth inning. 

Wilson called the moment a "step in the right direction" and time will tell if the same could be said for the entire bullpen. 

Wade Davis got four outs as Maddon played things true to his word. Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm bridged the gap from Wilson to Davis, allowing four singles and striking out three batters in 2.2 innings.

The Cubs had weeks to figure their bullpen out in low-leverage situations as the 2016 season wound down and still found themselves unable to come up with all the answers by the time October hit with Strop and Rondon nursing injuries. 

This year, they're gonna have to figure things out on the fly with very little wiggle room.

"We're fighting harder than usual to get that depth," Epstein said. "That's just the honest assessment. But again, I think those things change in a hurry —not a permanent state of affairs.

"It's a tough time of year to be fighting that hard to have kinda normal depth back there. But it is what it is. You deal with the reality. You don't cry in your cereal. You look at ways to fix it."

Of course, Epstein and Maddon both agree there are more things to focus on than just the Cubs' bullpen, like the health of other players (Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell) or the offense trying to find consistency. 

But pitching issues are the last thing the Cubs want down the stretch.

"That's where we're gonna find out what guys are made of," Epstein said. "Guys are going to get the ball in big spots and have to perform. Any time you're in a situation where you have a very small margin of error, whether it's in a postseason series or in a pennant race or in the course of a game, it adds to the risk and it adds to the reward, too.

"Guys step up in big games and perform well and all of a sudden, you have something because you have some momentum from the most important time."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Albert Almora Jr. ready for an everyday spot in the lineup?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Albert Almora Jr. ready for an everyday spot in the lineup?

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Connor McKnight (670 The Score) and Phil Thompson (Chicago Tribune) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The Cubs offense comes alive with Albert Almora, Jr. leading off. Is it time to make him the everyday centerfielder? 

Plus Mitch Trubisky says this week’s minicamp is the most he’s been coached in his career. So how long will it take him to master Matt Nagy’s new offense?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while


As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

Jed Hoyer is right: You can't make any claims about these Cubs one way or the other.

It's too early and the weather/schedule has been far too wacky for any strong statements about who, exactly, the 2018 Cubs are. 

"I don't think you can really evaluate much so far," Hoyer said. "There's no rhythm to the season yet. The game's been played in terrible condition for the most part.

"Positively or negatively, I don't think you can draw big conclusions based on what's happened. ... There's a lot of games to be played. We'll forget this time quickly and remember what it's like to be in [Wrigley] when it's not freezing. It's been a little choppy and hard to evaluate, for sure."

You can shout "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" from the Wrigleyville rooftops all you'd like, but that's not even why it's impossible to draw conclusions about the identity of this team.

The 8-8 Cubs have already had five postponements due to weather to start the 2018 season, including four on the recent homestand (and a makeup game on Thursday, which was originally scheduled as a travel day). The last time this franchise had five games in April called on account of weather was back in 1967 and there are still another 10 days left in the month for the weather to possibly mess with. 

This will surely go down as one of the oddest starts to a season in Cubs history, with a 17-inning game played on the second day of the year, followed by a 10-inning game the next day. The Cubs were supposed to start the campaign with six straight games, but the last contest in Cincinnati was postponed, so they got an impromptu two-day break, which was good at the time for Anthony Rizzo to rest his ailing back and the bullpen to catch their breath.

After a four-game series in Milwaukee's domed stadium in which the Cubs finally looked to be showing some rhythm, the weather reared its ugly head again.

The 11-day homestand featured four postponed games, maybe the worst weather game in Wrigley Field history (Saturday) and yet another impromptu two-day break. This week alone, the Cubs played two games in a five-day span.

All of that has led to an inconsistent product.

One day, the Cubs look like an offensive juggernaut, going 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, chasing an opposing starter before the fifth inning and scoring in bunches, as they showed Thursday in the 8-5 win over the Cardinals.

But in half the games this year, they can't seem to buy a hit against pitchers most Cubs fans haven't even heard of.

One day, the starting rotation flashes its elite potential, only to get battered around the next night.

"We haven't pitched very well," said Jon Lester, who allowed only an unearned run across six innings Thursday. "I'm not gonna speak for hitters; I don't like to cross that line by any means. But I feel like we've had some really good offensive games and our pitching staff as a whole hasn't stepped up.

"I think things will get better if we can get some games in. You got pitchers that are going on 6, 7, 8 days rest all the time. It's hard to get in that rhythm, especially when it's cold out. It's hard to find the ball; it's hard to find that release point."

Lester isn't one for making excuses and the Cubs aren't doing that. Every team in baseball has to go through these head-scratching weather issues, but it's impossible to point to the team's starting pitching inconsistency without including the schedule caveat. 

Baseball players — and starting pitchers, in specific — are creatures of habit and yet everybody is trying to navigate this new terrain.

Kyle Hendricks is still throwing a bunch on the side during all these rain/snow-outs, but most relievers are saving their bullets. Position players are still working out and getting their time in the cages, but that doesn't help everything.

The team that set records for their defensive prowess in 2016 has been inconsistent in the field this year, though their manager has an idea why.

"When you don't play consistently, the feel, the nuance, that escapes you," Joe Maddon said. 

The same issues that plagued the Cubs during their World Series "hangover" last year still seem to be around — not coming up with the timely hit, poor situational hitting overall, too many walks from the pitching staff.

But there are also reasons for optimism.

Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are showing development offensively and the lineup has missed its anchor (Anthony Rizzo) for almost half the season (seven games). Carl Edwards Jr. is limiting his walks and the Cubs bullpen has been the team's saving grace for the first three weeks.

The starting rotation is still iffy, but with resumes like Lester's, Kyle Hendricks', Jose Quintana's and Yu Darvish's, that figures to even out over a larger sample size.

The Cubs haven't fallen too far back in the standings (3 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates) and more importantly than anything, they've been able to stay healthy, apart from minor back issues for Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

The weather still doesn't look great in Colorado, Cleveland or back in Chicago next week, but eventually things will warm up and the sun will come out on a regular basis.

And eventually enough games will be played — and not postponed — where statements about who the 2018 Cubs are can be identified conclusively.

It's just not that time...yet.