Cubs

Joe Maddon has built a Cubs bullpen that plays in October

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Joe Maddon has built a Cubs bullpen that plays in October

The only real sense of panic in the Cubs' bullpen these days comes when the phone rings and they can't hear what name is being called on.

Apparently there's some issues deciphering between "Rodney" (Fernando Rodney) and "Ronnie" (Hector Rondon).

That's about as high stress as it gets down in a bullpen that can be seen joking around with fans or stomping around and clapping when Starlin Castro's walk-up song comes on.

"I think a lot of it is just, there's no pressure on anybody because there's so much depth," said Trevor Cahill, who got the win in the NLDS-clinching Game 4 after pitching the sixth inning. "There's not really roles in the bullpen.

"[The fourth inning] is just as important as the eighth or ninth. [Manager Joe Maddon] realizes that and he knows the game is decided every inning, not just the eighth or ninth."

[MORE - Twitter reacts to Cubs' NLDS win over Cardinals]

Cahill talked a lot about Justin Grimm's performance in the fourth inning, crediting the Cubs "mid-innings closer" (as Maddon tabbed Grimm earlier in the season) with saving the game for the team. Grimm entered after a leadoff walk by Jason Hammel and the first batter immediately reached on an error by third baseman Kris Bryant.

But Grimm buckled down and struck out the next three batters in succession, pumping his fist and setting the tone for the bullpen.

Maddon emptied out his entire bullpen, utilizing seven relievers to shut down the Cardinals for six innings. They allowed two runs on five hits and a walk, striking out 13 batters.

"The bullpen was fabulous," Maddon said. "Grimmer really set the tone. ... From the beginning to the end, the bullpen was fabulous."

In the four-game series with the Cardinals, the Cubs relief corps boasted a 3.14 ERA, racking up 21 strikeouts to only one walk in 14.1 innings while picking up two wins, eight holds and a pair of saves.

[RELATED - Cubs finish Cardinals with Javier Baez starring in Addison Russell's absence]

How have they been able to find such success?

Well, one of Maddon's favorite phrases - "Do simple better" - has come into play.

"We try to be simple," Rondon said. "When we come into the game, we try to make a pitch. We don't try to do too much.

"I know the adrenaline gets ramped up, but we still have to make those pitches. We did a really good job today."

Maddon has spent all year building this "egoless" bullpen, not assigning any true roles to anybody and even moving Rondon (who finished the regular season with a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves) out of the unofficial closer's role at one point early in the season.

"We never know [when we are gonna go in] and I think that helps us," Cahill said. "Nobody's too relaxed. We're always good to go. We're always loose and stretched out.

"Guys say they like the routine or roles or whatever, but other than Ronnie, we just go out there and we're ready to go whenever the phone rings."

Maddon has been putting his guys in situations all year to prepare them for the playoffs, cranking the intensity up in moments like the series against the San Francisco Giants Aug. 9 when Rondon loaded the bases with nobody out and struck out the next three hitters to close out a four-game sweep.

"We absolutely learned from [situations like that]," Rondon said. "That helped us to be better and to learn to control ourselves."

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

The crazy thing about the Cubs bullpen is how it was constructed. Only Grimm, Pedro Strop and Rondon began the season in the bullpen.

Travis Wood started the year in the rotation while the other three - Clayton Richard, Rodney and Cahill - were all designated for assignment by other MLB teams.

The Cubs picked them up off the scrap heap and formed a bullpen that plays in October.

"It does say a lot, the fact that you sometimes have to look underneath some stones, turn them over and see what's underneath there," Maddon said. "You have to research a little bit more deeply and find out."

After all, who thought two months ago that Cahill would be getting the win and Richard and Rodney would garner holds in the game that clinched the NLDS for the Cubs?

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.