PHILADELPHIA – The Kansas City Royals unveiled a playoff blueprint last year, essentially making it a six-inning game and riding their bullpen to a Game 7 loss in the World Series.
The Cubs have enough issues with their relievers that manager Joe Maddon listened to at least 10 questions about the bullpen during a pregame media session that lasted almost 13 minutes.
“You’re not going to win everything without a real consistent and strong bullpen,” Maddon said Sunday, sitting in Citizens Bank Park’s visiting dugout. “Physically, we have the ability to nail those innings down. Now we haven’t arrived at the Royals’ abilities or consistency yet. But I think physically we’re there.”
Mentally? The Cubs watched it all unravel the night before in a 7-5 walk-off loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, exposing what could be their biggest concern in October.
All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo committed the fielding error that led to the five unearned runs charged against Justin Grimm in the seventh inning. With two outs in the ninth, pinch-hitter Cody Asche crushed Hector Rondon’s 95-mph fastball and it bounced off the right-field foul pole for the game-winning, two-run homer.
No one really notices these guys when they do their job. But Maddon called the right-handed Grimm “the best lefty in the National League” because of his “absurd” numbers against left-handed hitters (23 strikeouts vs. seven walks in 53 at-bats and a .453 OPS). And Rondon has gone 28-for-32 in save chances, putting up a 0.81 ERA since May 25.
“It’s just getting them to get their confidence,” Maddon said. “Listen, most all of them are having really good years and physically – like you saw last night – Grimmer’s throwing 98 miles an hour.
“So we just got to get their confidence right. I try to avoid overusing them. (But) I think they’re all in pretty good order right now.”
Maddon is hoping Fernando Rodney will look more like the guy who led the majors with 48 saves last season – and not the one who got designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners last month with a 5.68 ERA.
Pedro Strop (26 holds) is a good setup guy, but do you trust him against the St. Louis Cardinals? Strop has faced 32 St. Louis hitters this season, giving up nine runs on nine hits and six walks in nine rivalry games (0-2, 15.19 ERA).
Tommy Hunter (5.84 ERA) hasn’t been the stabilizing force the Cubs hoped for when they acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles at the July 31 trade deadline.
Jason Motte hasn’t pitched since Aug. 23 and the Cubs can’t count on the veteran reliever – who closed out the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals – coming back from a strained right shoulder this year.
“I don’t think so,” Maddon said. “It’s slipping away from us a little bit right now.”
If Neil Ramirez hasn’t been able to rediscover what made him such a dominant setup guy in 2014 by now, it’s probably not going to happen in the middle of September.
Carl Edwards Jr. is an intriguing prospect with good stuff (369 career strikeouts in 292-plus innings in the minors). But his command issues at Triple-A Iowa (24 walks in 31-plus innings) make it difficult to throw him into high-leverage situations.
“You will see more of him,” Maddon said. “I want to see more of him. It just hasn’t presented (itself) right now.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs have used 22 different relievers this season (including David Ross and Chris Denorfia in mop-up duty) and posted a 3.60 ERA while working with a rotation that at times has struggled to account for innings beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.
This is a difficult balancing act with the most inherently volatile part of the team. There is no magic bullet. At this point, Maddon said, “You pretty much know who your guys are.”
A manager who has pushed the right buttons all season won’t hit the panic button now.
“You’re going to stay with that particular group,” Maddon said. “If there’s (an) outlier you want to throw in there, you might do something like that. But for the most part, it’ll be pretty much what you had seen all year.
“I just want to make sure that their confidence is in order going forward. That’s it.”