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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?

[MORE CUBS: Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win]

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.

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.