Joe Maddon loves to tinker with his bullpen and avoid labeling relief pitchers with specific roles.
That helps explain why the Cubs are tied for the major-league lead with seven different pitchers recording a save. (The Cubs are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon's old team.) The bullpen is a big reason why the Cubs are 67-49 and thinking about the playoffs heading into Tuesday night's game against the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field.
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Maddon also believes Hector Rondon can step up and be "that guy." Still, Maddon won't force the issue because he's seen how a "closer-by-committee" approach can be effective.
"I've done it before," Maddon said. "I'm very comfortable with it. But you always like to have that ninth-inning animal - and I think Rondon is starting to look like that again.
"I'm actually very comfortable with it, but I would never run or walk away from that one guy who can slam it. Never."
Rondon leads the team with 21 saves in 25 chances (though one of those blown saves came against the Milwaukee Brewers last week when shoddy defense let an unearned run score). The flame-throwing right-hander had been demoted earlier this season, notching only three saves between May 21 and July 28, though he didn’t complain about the situation.
“I’ll always be ready,” Rondon said. “I feel like in our bullpen everybody can throw the ninth inning. We have a lot of options.”
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With nine saves since July 29, is it safe to say Rondon is the guy again?
"I prefer not saying anything because he's doing so well," Maddon said. "I've often used that analogy where if you're playing golf with somebody and they're kicking your butt, you might want to point out how nice and slow his backswing is.
"And then the next hole, for sure, the ball is gonna be hooked. So, go play. Just go play. Right now, he's pitching in the ninth inning.
“I like what he's doing. I don't want to put any other burden on his mind."
Since May 22, Rondon has allowed just two earned runs in 36 games (35.2 innings), good for a 0.50 ERA. He has a 1.65 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP this season.
"Man, he's got a different look about him right now," Maddon said. "His confidence is soaring. ... Obviously, in the beginning, he just wasn't on top of his game. And I think what you're seeing right now is his ability to readjust in the moment.
"If he walks the leadoff hitter, he can still gather his thoughts and come back and get some really good hitters after that."
Rondon was all smiles last week after escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam to finish off a four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants. He talked about how much he loved closing in that moment, getting to pump his fist after the final out in front of 40,000 screaming fans.
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But Rondon also understands that nothing is set in stone in Maddon's bullpen.
“I don’t care if he tells me or tells other guys who the closer (is),” Rondon said. “I think the most important (thing) for us is win games.”
Theo Epstein's front office didn't make a trade-deadline move for someone like Jonathan Papelbon, one of those closers you immediately anoint as "the guy." The Cubs are fine with letting Maddon do his thing, mixing and matching on the way to October.
"If you can pull it off - if you have the right personnel and the right leadership - it can really help," Epstein said. "You get everyone involved, you get the right kind of matchups, you get the right pitchers in certain spots in their lineup, and it can be really effective.
"Sometimes the biggest spots are in the seventh inning. Or sometimes they pop up in the eighth or the sixth or in extra innings. The more guys you can have who are battle-tested and trustworthy and match up against certain parts of the other lineup, the better off you are."