San Diego Padres closer Fernando Rodney pulled back his pretend bow and shot an imaginary arrow into the foggy sky on Wednesday afternoon, celebrating a 7-4 win over the Cubs in Game 1 of a doubleheader between two teams that appear to be heading in opposite directions: Buy vs. Sell.
That tilted-hat look and trademark final-out routine would normally bother fans at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs caught lightning in a bottle with Rodney during last year’s playoff run. It’s hard to complain when your team has the best record in baseball, even after a sloppy loss that featured three errors and a bullpen meltdown against the last-place Padres.
The Cubs can’t win ‘em all – this snapped an eight-game streak for a team off to the best start in franchise history since the 1907 World Series champions – but Theo Epstein’s front office can get manager Joe Maddon some more pitching to help withstand the next 1,200-1,300 innings.
“We almost throw out everything that’s happened so far, because we are on such a roll,” Epstein said. “We probably spend more time looking ahead to the inevitable challenging periods when we’re shorthanded or strapped and things aren’t breaking our way.
“We’re trying to get ahead and figure out how we’re going to deal with that adversity.”
Game 1 appeared to be going according to plan when Kyle Hendricks walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the seventh inning, the Cubs holding a two-run lead with two outs and a runner on first base after a soft infield single.
Pedro Strop – who entered the game with eight holds and opponents hitting .114 (5-for-44) against him – threw a wild pitch and then got a groundball before Javier Baez’s throwing error allowed a run to score. Strop walked Matt Kemp and then watched Brett Wallace drive an 82-mph slider into the left-center field bleachers for a three-run homer and a 6-4 lead.
“I felt stronger as the game went on,” Hendricks said after cutting his ERA to 3.03 and improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 31:7. “But that spot there, that was the fourth time coming through the order. And that was the first time, I think, I’ve been over 100 (pitches) in a while, as far as I can remember. You can second-guess it every time, either way.
“It’s a long season. You’re going to lose games. You’re going to lose close ones, you’re going to lose ones where you’re ahead. A lot of things are going to happen. So you just got to learn how to deal with each situation.”
That’s how the in-case-of-emergency Cubs wound up with Rodney late last August, getting a two-time All-Star the Seattle Mariners had designated for assignment.
Maddon trusted Rodney after their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays, and found ways to deploy Clayton Richard (acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate last summer) and Trevor Cahill (released by the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers before signing a minor-league deal).
It’s not always obvious, but there’s a cumulative effect with the quick hooks for Hendricks and Jason Hammel, and pushing Strop so hard (195 appearances since the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season), and using 80 picks on pitchers in the last four drafts and not having any of them ready for the big leagues yet.
“When it comes down to pitching, you can never have enough,” Maddon said. “Because once something goes awry with your pitching, man, it’s hard to fill in the blanks there.
“(With) position players, it’s somewhat easier to plug somebody in positions and still maintain a nice roll. But when you’re missing vital pitchers, they’re really hard to find. To me, it’s always about pitching.”
The Rays couldn’t give Maddon everything he wanted – the big-market spotlight, a $25 million contract and all these monster middle-of-the-order hitters – but he did get spoiled with Tampa Bay’s pitching.
Maybe the Cubs will acquire another power arm for their bullpen, or make the under-the-radar moves that worked so well last summer, or find the young, controllable starter they couldn’t acquire over the winter to eventually replace Arrieta if he leaves as a free agent after the 2017 season.
“I’ve said it at clinics many times – the game could have been called ‘Pitching’ as opposed to ‘Baseball,’” Maddon said. “You cannot have enough of that. I’m always about that.”