SAN DIEGO — The Cubs bullpen hasn’t been as good as advertised, making manager Joe Maddon sound a little defensive at times and forcing Theo Epstein’s front office to rebuild on the fly.
But one takeaway from Wednesday night’s 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park is the hope this could be a confidence booster for a group that’s caused so much anxiety among Cubs fans on Twitter.
The Cubs pieced it together, with Maddon pulling Tsuyoshi Wada after 69 pitches and pushing the right buttons as five relievers combined to throw 4 1/3 scoreless innings.
Making his season debut after six rehab starts with Triple-A Iowa, Wada struck out the first four batters he faced and notched seven strikeouts the first time through San Diego’s lineup.
Maddon is someone who likes to balance the numbers against his gut instincts. He didn’t hesitate in bringing in Justin Grimm and turning this game over to the bullpen with runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth inning of a one-run game.
“I’m more about the Cubs winning as opposed to any particular pitcher winning,” Maddon said. “You let him go for one more third of an inning, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.”
Maddon sensed Wada felt a little winded after drawing a leadoff walk against Padres starter Tyson Ross in the fifth inning and scoring on Dexter Fowler’s triple into the right-field corner. When asked through an interpreter postgame, Wada couldn’t remember the last time he ran the bases like that, scratching his head and guessing nine or 10 years ago.
“I wasn’t tired or anything like that,” Wada said, “but the coaches and the manager are watching very closely. I think it was the right decision. The team won the game, so I was happy about it.”
[MORE CUBS: Cubs need to step up their defensive game]
Wada had been a pleasant surprise last season, going 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 13 starts, but in a sense the Cubs also saw diminishing returns: Opponents hit .204 against the Japanese lefty the first time through the lineup, .255 through the second turn and .360 by the third at-bat.
Maddon also didn’t like the specific matchup of Wada against Derek Norris. Grimm — whose forearm injury exposed the bullpen in April — walked Norris before striking out Matt Kemp swinging with a curveball.
“I still think we’re just as good,” said Grimm, who has a 0.00 ERA and nine strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. “I know there’s been some outings that haven’t gone our way, but I’m confident in every single guy down there. They got the stuff to get people out.
“We’re only going to get stronger.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
A bullpen that was supposed to be a strength has already used 13 different relievers, posting a 4.20 ERA and blowing seven saves. The Cubs need to see more moments like this: Two runners on and Jason Motte blowing a high 97 mph fastball past Kemp to end the seventh inning.
“The bullpen’s going to be fine,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “We know they’re pretty good, and sometimes they’re trying a little bit too hard. They tried too hard to manufacture those extra strikeouts or those better sliders. And that’s when you got to back off a little bit.
“Just concentrate on making a good pitch rather than a nasty pitch. A good pitch is good enough. And right now, sometimes they just try to make that nasty pitch that is going to get them out of the jam. You’re forcing everything to happen rather than letting it happen.”
The Cubs are 22-17 and still waiting to really get rolling. It won’t happen if the bullpen doesn’t come together.
“A big part of our problem is we have not made good pitches out of the ‘pen when we needed to,” Maddon said. “That’s probably the No. 1 item that we have to clean up.
“And saying that, I like the arms and the people down there a lot. I think it’s already in-house. We just got to be better in different moments in regards to making pitches. But I think the guys that are down there are very capable of that.”