The Cubs bullpen is a topic of conversation that won't go away as Joe Maddon continues to mix and match the arms he uses late in games, to varying degrees of success.
Four different Cubs relief pitchers have recorded saves this season. Seven have been in save opportunities.
And with closer Hector Rondon given a shorter leash of late — he was removed from a game in the bottom of the ninth after walking the only hitter he faced during the Cubs' road series in Washington — Maddon has opted to use different arms in save situations. In the Cubs' last five games (four wins), three different pitchers have picked up a save: Rondon, Pedro Strop and Jason Motte.
So are we in closer-by-committee territory yet?
That's an unknown. But Maddon admitted there are advantages to each strategy: a designated closer and several relievers who can pitch in a variety of situations.
“I like having one guy, absolutely, because you when you do, you’re managing eight innings with your bullpen. When you don’t have the one guy, necessarily, then you’re managing nine. That makes a difference," Maddon said ahead of Friday's game against the Reds. "So it’s always nice. Those last three outs can be a pain in the butt. The other team, mentally, always steps it up a little bit there."
But there's the other side of the coin, which Maddon seemed to like just as much.
“But the nice thing, also, about not necessarily having it designated that way is that you get this more cleaner, clear opportunity to use your best pitcher in the eighth inning against the middle of the lineup. Whereas you can send somebody with lesser ability against three, four, five or two, three, four so you can save ‘the dude’ for six, seven, eight or seven, eight, nine. That’s where it gets skewed sometimes," the manager said. "And so when you’re a little bit more full throttle and not worrying about roles or innings that a guy’s supposed to pitch in, you could potentially match it up better, theoretically. Now does that always work? I don’t know. But purely from a logical perspective, I kind of like it that way.
“If the high-leverage hitters are coming up in the eighth inning and you know the guy in the ninth inning’s better suited for those guys but you’re not going to do it ‘because,’ then sometimes you feel like you’re at a disadvantage. And then all of a sudden the lead’s blown in the eighth, and you missed opportunities to put the guy in. These are the things you think about. So when you don’t necessarily have a one guy, then you’re able to match it up better."
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Maddon said that's the situation that presented itself in Thursday's win. The Reds sent Joey Votto, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce up to the plate in the eighth inning, the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters in their lineup. Maddon used Strop in the eighth, where the more difficult hitters were hitting, and then he used Rondon to close out the game against hitters lower down in the Reds' lineup. Strop retired all three hitters he faced, with Rondon retiring three of four in the ninth.
Clearly, Maddon appreciates flexibility in the bullpen, being able to use relievers in whichever situation he thinks is best. That could mean more mixing and matching and different names in different innings as the summer moves along.