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Cubs' Joe Maddon expounds on positives, negatives of one closer

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Cubs' Joe Maddon expounds on positives, negatives of one closer

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?

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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.

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers 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.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.