WASHINGTON – There were no epic meltdowns or shots fired through the media. You didn’t hear the sound of 40,000 fans booing at Wrigley Field. But once again the Cubs have a closer controversy.
Jason Hammel had been doused with a mixture of Monster Amino supplements during the postgame mosh pit, leaving a pinkish/white substance all over his shirt and the back of his head.
Joe Maddon lobbied for his pitcher to make the All-Star team during the manager’s postgame media session. Addison Russell looked smooth making his first big-league start at shortstop. The Cubs are in position to win a series against one of the National League’s elite teams.
But Maddon’s decision to pull Hector Rondon after facing one batter in the ninth inning definitely drove the conversation coming out of Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“It was about winning the game today,” Maddon said. “I am not ordaining anybody new. It was a moment for today.”
Hammel pitched into the ninth inning and walked off the mound at Nationals Park after giving up Bryce Harper’s 19th home run this season. Maddon then watched Rondon throw nine straight fastballs – each one clocked between 95 and 97 mph – and walk Anthony Rendon.
Wilson Ramos had already homered once this afternoon and Maddon didn’t hesitate to call for Pedro Strop, a better fit with his groundball rates when compared to Rondon’s flyball tendencies.
Remember when Rondon threw the Milwaukee Brewers 19 consecutive fastballs last month, almost blowing a four-run lead before hanging on for a 7-6 victory?
“It’s just how the walk occurred, too,” Maddon said. “I wasn’t comfortable with what I was seeing.”
Strop forced that groundball in the Ramos matchup and then struck out Clint Robinson and Ian Desmond, getting them to swing at sliders in the dirt. Strop pointed to the sky and pounded his chest after notching his second save.
Rondon might not be the ninth-inning answer in Maddon’s bullpen equation.
“I may look for an opportunity for him just to pitch more freely in a different moment,” Maddon said, “so he can go out there and work on some stuff, because this guy’s done a great job here in the past finishing games off. He’s going to do it again. But for right now, I just thought that was the right thing to do today.”
[ALSO: Soler expecting a fast recovery]
Rondon saved 29 games last year, but the stakes are much higher for a 29-25 team that’s playing with a win-now sense of urgency.
“It’s just being more assertive, aggressive, confident,” Maddon said. “The stuff is great and the guy’s great. He came up to me, fist pump after the game, which shows me what kind of a professional that he is. It was outstanding. He wants to win. He’s a team guy. He’s going to be a big part of our future. Today, I thought it was better to do what we did.”
Rondon admitted he felt “a little bit” surprised by Maddon’s quick decision but said all the right things and appeared to handle it well, calmly answering questions at his locker.
“Any situation they want to put me in, I’ll take it,” Rondon said.
It’s not like Rondon is losing velocity or looking like a total mechanical mess or causing scenes in the clubhouse. His overall numbers are actually pretty good: 3-0, 3.09 ERA, 10 saves, 21 strikeouts vs. seven walks in 23-plus innings.
But Rondon is trending in the wrong direction and a manager and a front office that has already shaken up the roster several times within the first two months will only have so much patience.
“If (Maddon) puts me in the ninth inning, the fifth inning, seventh inning, I don’t care,” Rondon said. “I need to do (my job).”