Brandon Morrow

Cubs bullpen off to a historic start

Cubs bullpen off to a historic start

MILWAUKEE — No Cubs position group was more maligned than the bullpen late last season, but the narrative has changed quickly around the relief corps.

The Cubs bullpen has been a source of steady strength in the first week-plus of action while the team has gotten off to a disappointing 3-4 start.

Entering play Saturday, Cubs relievers led Major League Baseball with a microscopic 0.84 ERA and .491 OPS against in 32.1 innings. The last time a Cubs bullen got off to this good of a start was 1945, when that group posted a 0.72 ERA through their first seven games with an appearance.

Even with a run allowed Saturday, Cubs relievers still own a 1.02 ERA.

Friday was a perfect example of the bullpen's impact, even if they wound up saddled with the loss.

After Kyle Hendricks gave up a pair of two-run homers in the fifth inning to allow the Brewers to tie the game at 4, the Cubs bullpen stepped up to keep the game even to the very end.

Brian Duensing allowed the first two batters in the sixth inning to reach base, but teamed up with Pedro Strop and Justin Wilson to strand the runners at second and third. 

Wilson came on to blow 96 mph fastballs by Travis Shaw and looked very, very good again for three batters before the wheels came off with back-to-back-to-back walks, giving Cubs fans flashbacks of his 2017 season. But Steve Cishek came in to twirl a breaking ball by Lorenzo Cain and another threat was dodged.

"When [Wilson] came in, I was looking to get four outs out of somebody," Joe Maddon said. "And it ended up being him the way it played. Started out great. I mean, right up to [Brewers first baseman Jesus] Aguilar.

"It was great; he was outstanding. I do believe that's going to be in the rearview mirror. I don't think that's gonna be any kind of negative carry over effect. 

"I think he's fine, but he was outstanding and then all of a sudden, he lost the plate a little bit. But the way he came in and got Shaw, the ball was jumping."

Carl Edwards Jr. had a sparkling eighth inning before Mike Montgomery gave up a one-out walk in the ninth inning that came back to haunt the Cubs as the winning run two batters later.

The walks were a major concern for the Cubs bullpen last year and they have doled out 15 free passes in 32.1 innings this season, but they've also permitted essentially nothing else.

Through seven games, here's how the bullpen compared to the starting rotation:

Cubs SPs: 36.2 IP, 20 ER, 62 baserunners, 24 Ks, 4.91 ERA, 1.58 WHIP

Cubs RPs: 32.1 IP, 3 ER, 37 baserunners, 35 K, 0.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

"What our bullpen's been able to do, lights out again," Hendricks said after Friday's game. "It's been really fun to watch them lately."

Part of the impact of the bullpen is how much it's been used. Through five games, Cubs relievers actually had recorded more outs (78) than starting pitchers (77) thanks in large part to the 17-inning game in Miami.

It's also impressive that the bullpen has done this all without a contribution from its closer and highest-paid member. 

Brandon Morrow was the big relief addition over the winter, but through the first seven games, he's thrown just two pitches and that was serving up Miguel Rojas' walk-off hit in that 17-inning ballgame in Miami.

It's not for lack of trying. Morrow's been up several times getting warm, but the situation in a game hasn't presented itself yet. The Cubs haven't had a save chance yet and have only three holds as a team through the seven games.

Still, the Cubs want to get Morrow out there one way or another and that could come Saturday against the Brewers.

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

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AP

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

Joe Maddon was just chilling in the first-base dugout, enjoying the Miami weather and taking in the undeniable beauty of Opening Day.

Then, suddenly, he was forced into action.

Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester was unable to make it out of the fourth inning against the Marlins and Maddon had to think quickly on how to save the first game for a team with World Series expectations.

Spring training was officially over.

"That was not what I was looking for. I'm not trying to match up in the fourth or fifth inning of the first game! I'm over there enjoying myself on Opening Day and now all of a sudden, I gotta start thinking a little bit," Maddon joked with reporters.

Yes, it was all in jest. Maddon and his coaching staff are always thinking ahead. Things rarely come as a total surprise for big-league managers...even on Day 1. They think about almost every scenario before it happens.

And Maddon is already thinking about August, September and October, even though the Cubs are just five games into the 2018 campaign.

A huge part of that is the craziness and "awkwardness" of an opening week where the Cubs' bullpen has emerged as the superstar during a 2-3 start.

The bullpen was Public Enemy No. 1 last postseason and for most of the offseason with Cubs fans. Theo Epstein's front office retooled the relievers, adding veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon.

Through five games, the bullpen has recorded 78 outs, one more than the Cubs' starting rotation (77 outs). 

That'll happen when you're forced to play 17-inning and 10-inning games on back-to-back nights and when a rotation that may be the best in baseball has just two quality starts once through the order.

"[The relievers have] proven their mettle already," Maddon said. "...There's a lot of confidence to be derived from these games from their part."

The Cubs skipper knows he's had no choice but to lean heavily on his bullpen so early and thus far, they've responded with a sparkling 0.69 ERA (2 ER in 26 innings) while allowing just 17 hits and 10 walks.

But wearing down the bullpen early is what got the Cubs in trouble last year. From Maddon to Epstein to the relievers themselves, there was an open admission that the bullpen was tired and worn out by the time the playoffs hit.

Maddon is always tuned in to getting his team to play at their peak performance in August and September and heading into the postseason on a high note.

Baseball has changed, however. With everybody around the league now "woke" to most pitchers' struggles facing an opposing lineup for the third time in an outing, managers are going to their bullpens earlier and earlier.

So this year, the Cubs hoped to go easy on their bullpen so they, too, would be fresh for what they hope is a run into the end of October. That should've been made easier with two guys — Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler — stretched out as starters coming from spring training and capable of pitching long relief outings.

It just hasn't worked out that way, though Maddon won't ignore the long game.

"I'm trying to keep in mind August and September," he said. "I want us to play well and strong in those months and we have. And if you don't keep an eye on it right now, you will not play well in those months.

"It's hard to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, especially when you play as deep into the year as we have. I think it's wise to keep an eye on the end of the year right now."

MLB teams typically get an off-day in the first few days of a new season, but the Cubs were thrown into the fire immediately with six scheduled games in six days. And the first three of those games featured four games' worth of innings with a pair of extra inning contests.

"The three games for the first three games of the year are so awkward," Maddon said. "The pitching didn't want to work. ... The bullpen was extended."

No pitcher was taxed more than Montgomery, even though he threw only 36 pitches. The 28-year-old pitcher worked each of the Cubs' first three games of the season, marking the first time he's ever worked three days in a row in the big leagues.

Montgomery said his arm still felt fine after those three games thanks to being stretched out as a starter in spring training and only needing to go one inning at a time in each outing. But this is also not something he wants to make a habit of all season to the point where he's completely worn down in September.

The Cubs did catch a break thanks to the weather in Cincinnati, however. A rainout Tuesday night affords them back-to-back off-days heading into a crucial early-season series with the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend.

Every Cubs reliever will be rested entering Thursday night as the team's first true test of 2018 will emerge against a retooled Brewers team that has its sights set on the division.

Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

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AP

Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been the lone bright spot in the first five games of the 2018 season.

While the offense has struggled (18 straight scoreless innings) and the starters have had an uneven performance one turn through the rotation, the bullpen has been the saving grace.

Justin Wilson is a huge factor in that.

He's tied for the team lead with three appearances and is second only to Eddie Butler (who had all 7 innings of relief in the one 17-inning game) with 3.2 innings.

In fact, Wilson has gotten more outs in the first five games than Opening Day starter Jon Lester.

Wilson's been light's out, allowing only a single and a pair of walks while striking out five batters. More importantly: He hasn't allowed a run.

The veteran left-hander pitched a perfect seventh inning against the Reds in Cincinnati Monday, blowing a 96 mph fastball by Joey Votto to end the frame.

It's a far cry for Wilson, who faced only two batters in the NLDS last fall and was left off the NLCS roster.

Wilson endured surprising and extreme struggles after being traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Cubs last summer. He walked an astonishing 19 batters in 17.2 innings while also giving up 18 hits and 10 earned runs.

The control issues were there from the outset, with a pair of walks in his Cubs debut Aug. 2 and he handed out 9 free passes in his first 11 innings. But things spiraled when the calendar flipped to September, with 5 walks and 5 runs allowed in his first three outings in the final month while recording only 5 outs.

An offseason away from the baseball diamond may have made all the difference.

"It was a struggle last year, so it was nice to get a little breather and kinda regroup and come back to spring with the same group," Wilson said. "I just kinda took a step back, a deep breath and relaxed. And that was it."

It's still too early to say for certain that he's back to being the pitcher that posted a 2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 and 13 saves in four months with the Tigers, but sometimes pushing the reset button is all that's needed.

Neither Wilson nor the Cubs had any answers to point to specifically on where the lack of control and effectiveness came from last year, but things can snowball pretty quickly in the middle of a tight pennant race when you're joining a new team in a new environment. 

"The thing is, I never lost confidence in myself," Wilson said. "Just had to get back on track. Staying in my routine, getting back and getting ready for the season."

If the 30-year-old southpaw can tap into that success he's had as a reliever for his entire big-league career up until the last two months of 2017, that's a gamechanger for the Cubs bullpen.

The Cubs currently feature three left-handed relievers (Wilson, Brian Duensing and Mike Montgomery), which means Wilson could either be trusted as a one-out guy against a dynamic left-handed hitter (like Votto or Bryce Harper) or he could carve through the heart of a team's order in the eighth inning or even be available to close on days Brandon Morrow is down. It'll just depend on what Joe Maddon and the Cubs need that game.

So while three games is hardly a statement, it's certainly a step in the right direction and any step in the right direction for Wilson is a huge boost for the Cubs bullpen.