Can Neil Ramirez be an X-factor for Cubs bullpen down the stretch?


Can Neil Ramirez be an X-factor for Cubs bullpen down the stretch?

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.

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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]."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 30th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 30th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa hit the 30-homer threshold on June 21, 1998 in only his 71st game of the season. For perspective, the 2018 Cubs leader in homers on June 21 is Javy Baez with 14 and Mike Trout leads all of baseball with only 23.

At this point, Mark McGwire was ahead of Sosa, but the Cubs slugger was pulling closer. McGwire had 33 dingers on June 21 while Ken Griffey Jr. had 28 and Greg Vaughn had 25.

Sosa' June 21 homer came off Tyler Green and was his 5th blast of the series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field that year. But the Cubs lost that series, despite Sosa's efforts.

Fun fact: Sosa drove in 10 runs in the three-game series with the Phillies that summer while the rest of his teammates combined for only 9 RBI.

Podcast: Wild week at Wrigley wraps up with Cubs showing what they’re made of


Podcast: Wild week at Wrigley wraps up with Cubs showing what they’re made of

The Cubs have been a different team the last six weeks, looking a lot more like the resilient bunch from 2016 than the sluggish 2017 squad that lacked energy. After some wacky circumstances Monday and a tough loss in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, the Cubs came out and showed what they’re made of in the last two games of the series against the Dodgers, a team that knocked them out of postseason play last fall.

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki sum up the longest short homestand (or shortest long homestand?), updating the status of Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, the Cubs pitching staff and how the team is rounding into form as the season’s halfway mark approaches.

Check out the entire podcast here: