The Cubs entered the 2015 season feeling pretty good about their bullpen, thanks in large part to Neil Ramirez's breakout in 2014.
But the 26-year-old right-hander has battled injuries this year and hasn't gotten into a rhythm as Joe Maddon continues to try to fit all the pieces together in the Cubs bullpen.
With only two weeks left in the regular season, Ramirez is back and looks like his 2014 self with back-to-back scoreless appearances against the Cardinals over the weekend, striking out four in two innings.
With a Cubs bullpen struggling to find consistency beyond Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, Ramirez could bring stability and serve as an X-factor for Maddon with the postseason just around the corner.
"That was nice to see," Maddon said after Ramirez's second outing against the Cardinals Sunday. "He really threw the ball well; velocity is up. Hopefully his confidence is going to benefit from that moment.
"You might try to get him in a little bit more often if he's throwing that good."
Maddon said he doesn't yet have a specific role for Ramirez, who was activated from the disabled list earlier this month after missing five weeks with an abdominal strain.
Ramirez has also had lingering shoulder issues all year, but he can still dial it up in the mid 90s with his fastball at times and said he feels a lot more like the pitcher who put up a 1.44 ERA and struck out 53 batters in 43.2 innings for the Cubs last season.
"It took all year to get there, but I'm there now," Ramirez said. "My shoulder feels loose now like it did last year. I feel like I can let it go."
Ramirez credits his throwing program with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and bullpen coach Lester Strode for helping him regain his 2014 form.
While he doesn't feel his stuff is consistent yet, Ramirez - a former starter - is drawing on his knowledge of pitching to get by even without his best stuff.
"You really have to learn how to deal with the failure, the ups and downs and stuff like that," he said. "I think not having the ability to just go out there and blow it by guys, you have to pitch.
"So right now, I know that I might not be able to run that fastball by guys as much and I've gotta keep it down in the zone and I gotta work on my breaking stuff off that.
"I was a starter for my whole life, so I know how to pitch. I'm gonna kinda take more of a starter's approach when I'm out there because I don't yet have the ability to blow it by guys [consistently]."
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He appreciated Maddon showing confidence and giving him the ball in the ninth inning of Friday's 8-3 win over the Cardinals.
It was Ramirez's first outing in almost two months and he was stoked to finally get off the sideline and back out on the field to help his team.
"It just sucks, man," Ramirez said. "Anytime a team has the ability to win like it has this year, you want to be a part of that. It's been tough to watch from the sideline. But I'm back now, so I'm just trying to do my part.
"I'm just real hungry and waiting to get my opportunity."