By Sarah Langs
If it seems like the Cubs have won a lot of close games lately, that feeling isn’t just an illusion.
Entering Friday, the Cubs have the most wins in one-run games of any team in baseball, sporting a 10-6 record. The Seattle Mariners are the only other team that’s played in 16 one-run games, and they’re sitting at 8-8 in those.
Manager Joe Maddon pointed to the Cubs' relief corps as a major reason why the team has found success in close games.
“One-run games, a lot of that has to do with your bullpen,” Maddon said. “The fact that you can somehow gather the lead and then they can hold on, by their fingernails sometimes -- and they did [Thursday over the Mets]. A good bullpen permits that to happen as much as anything.”
Cubs relievers are ninth in the National League with a 4.14 ERA, and the 'pen’s batting average against is .247, which puts them at seventh in the NL. They may not lead the league in any statistical category, but Cubs relievers have managed to keep the team competitive in these tight games.
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Maddon attributed a lot of this to stretching the relievers out, with a keen eye towards avoiding overuse.
“Yesterday, I really wanted to stay away from [Zac] Rosscup, even though he only pitched to one hitter the day before. So yesterday was [James] Russell, and Rosscup didn’t even move his arm,” Maddon said Friday. “[Pedro] Strop had almost three days off...then he goes out and gets four outs on about 12 pitches. That’s outstanding.”
Maddon also mentioned that the team is monitoring closer Hector Rondon’s workload, since he’s been appearing more.
Six of the 10 wins in one-run games have come during May, and five of those have happened after May 5.
That's when the bullpen got a shot in the arm as the Cubs called up left-hander Russell from Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs got a further boost a day later when hard-throwing righty Justin Grimm returned from the disabled list.
The two have combined to allow just 1 earned run over 9.1 innings since their respective call-up and activation.
“Grimm has really added to the mix,” Maddon said. “Grimm and Russell have really helped give definition to the group in regards to comfortably bringing different guys in to different moments and feeling like he can get things done in a positive way. It’s starting to form up.”
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Since May 6, the bullpen has posted only one loss -- last Sunday’s 3-2 loss in Milwaukee. Ten of the 16 one-run games the Cubs have played have come against divisional opponents and the Cubs are 5-5 in those contests.
If the bullpen continues to pitch at this pace, the Cubs will be able to stay competitive.
Entering Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen sports the best ERA in the NL at 1.71. The Cardinals’ 'pen has also posted the most wins (10) and has the third-best batting average against at .219. St. Louis relievers have also thrown the third-most innings, though, with 110.1.
The 104.1 innings from Cubs relievers is tied for seventh in the NL, with just four teams’ bullpens having thrown fewer innings. The bullpen numbers are pretty bunched up: two teams are tied ahead of the Cubs with 108.2 IP, and the Cubs are in a four-way tie with the Brewers, Braves and Dodgers. Starting pitchers going deep into games will help the bullpen stay fresh throughout the season.
Last year, the Cubs went 19-21 in one-run games.