Cubs

Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

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Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011
Posted: 12:54 p.m.

By Tony Andracki
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt know what they were going to get from Jeff Samardzija. At 26, he was out of minor-league options and pitching for his future.

With little more than a week left in the season, Samardzija leads all major-league relievers with 86.2 innings, a sign hes earned the trust of the men at the top step of the Cubs dugout.

The best part about relieving is you get to pitch a lot, Samardzija said. I know the more I work, the better I am. Under Lou (Piniella), if you werent pitching that great, you could be sitting around for a week, eight days. And I know for me, thats not the best situation.

Samardzija owns a 7-4 record and a 3.01 ERA this year while averaging a strikeout an inning and holding opponents to a .194 average, the best mark on the team. In a disappointing season, the emergence of the bullpen has been a bright spot.

Hes a big, strong guy, and hes come on like gangbusters, Cubs manager Mike Quade said.

James Russell also began the season as question mark, and it took awhile before his role was defined. Once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner went down with arm injuries during the first week of the season, Russell was thrust into the starting rotation.

There he posted a 9.33 ERA and took the loss in all five starts as opponents hit .381 against him. But as a reliever, the 25-year-old southpaw has seen much more success, compiling a 2.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 46.1 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .243 batting average.

Ive just been more consistent with my pitches, Russell said. If I make a mistake, I make sure its not over the middle of the plate and it doesnt get crushed.

Russell laughed because hes established himself in a bullpen that should again feature Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in 2012. Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs rank 11th in the MLB with a 3.59 bullpen ERA, a real asset considering the relievers have pitched the sixth most innings in the league. (Theyre also tied for fifth in the majors with 23 blown saves.)

Samardzija and Russell have picked up good habits from the veterans, observing how they go about their business. Russell also consults his dad, Jeff, a former major-league reliever who saved 186 games across 14 seasons.

The two have banded together, playing long toss and keeping an eye out for each other. When one starts slacking off, the other picks him up and gets him back on track.

Since were going into the game around the same time, we can kind of keep our schedules the same, Samardzija said. Its a day-to-day understanding of where you need to be. When you get out of that comfort zone, thats when things start going awry. Weve been able to stick together and have each others backs.

The work has paid off. As the summer wore on, the two earned Quades trust and found themselves in big-game situations more and more.

Jeff and I have been throwing pretty good out of the bullpen, Russell said. I love it. I like that theyre putting us in tighter situations and relying on us a lot more.

Samardzija boasts a 1.83 ERA in his last 40 outings. Russell carries a 2.38 ERA over his last 34 innings.

We had some new guys step up and really show what theyre capable of doing, Wood said. It was fun watching them get better and have success and go out and dominate at times.

Russell and Samardzija are both under team control for the 2012 season. What their roles become depends on the next regime, though Samardzija clearly has his sights set on a rotation spot. Either way, both young guns figure to be a prominent part of next years Cubs.

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

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AP

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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