There were several reasons why the Cubs ran into a wall in the National League Championship Series last fall, but maybe none moreso than the ineffectiveness of the bullpen.
In fact, well before the 2017 postseason even started, the Cubs bullpen was already wearing down.
They posted a 4.48 ERA in the second half, including a 4.96 ERA in August and a 4.36 ERA in September. That coming after a 3.26 ERA from the unit before the All-Star Break.
The main reason for the downturn in performance — by the own admission of Joe Maddon and the Cubs front office — is how heavily the team needed to lean on that bullpen.
It's still early May, but it appears the 2018 Cubs are doomed to repeat history.
This year's bullpen ranks third in baseball with a 2.71 ERA, but at what cost?
Here is the list of Cubs relievers on pace to set a new career high in appearances this season:
1. Brandon Morrow
2. Carl Edwards Jr.
3. Pedro Strop
4. Brian Duensing
5. Steve Cishek
6. Mike Montgomery
Edwards, Strop and Cishek are also on track to set new career highs in innings pitched, as well.
The Cubs have been very careful with Morrow, who has had injury issues each year since 2011.
Still, the new Chicago closer is on track for 67 games and 62 innings pitched. He's only touched 60 appearances in a season one time in his career — back in 2007. He last threw more than 62 innings in a season in 2012 when he threw 124.2 innings as a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Edwards is on pace for 76 games and 81 innings, up from his career marks of 73 games and 66.1 innings set last year.
Strop (pace of 71 games, 71 innings) last made 70 appearances in 2012, the same year he set a career high in innings pitched (66.1).
Cishek's workload is even more worrisome, on pace for 81 games and 76.2 innings, well above his career mark of 69 games and 69.2 innings (both in 2013). He's worked in half the Cubs games this year already.
The main culprit for the overworked bullpen is a starting staff that ranks 24th in baseball in innings pitched as of Thursday morning.
Simply, the rotation has not worked deep enough into games on a consistent basis either because of inefficency (racking up 100 pitches in only 5 or 6 innings) or ineffectiveness.
It's also the nature of the game nowadays, with every organization "woke" to the idea that starting pitchers struggle when facing a batting order for the third time.
And it's hard for Maddon not to want to turn to a bullpen that features five guys with an ERA under 2.20 (Duensing, Edwards, Morrow, Strop, Cishek).
"The bullpen's actually coming on right now," Maddon said. "If we can continue to parcel out the work and not beat anybody up, I think we can continue to see them get even better. You're gonna see velocity numbers up."
The Cubs are currently using their eighth and final spot in the bullpen as a shuttle from Triple-A Iowa, bringing up guys who can give them innings and permit more rest for the main guys.
The Cubs bullpen could also receive an overall boost if Justin Wilson continues to find his form.
Wilson is used to the workload he's on pace for (67 games, 62.1 innings) out of the 'pen and has really come on strong lately. After walking 11 batters in his first 8.2 innings in 2018, the veteran lefty has not walked a batter the last five times out, permitting only a run on five hits in that span (4.2 innings).
When the Cubs traded for Wilson last summer, there was talk of him joining the conversation as the 2018 closer. But head-scratching control issues have plagued him since.
If he can be more like the pitcher he was in Detroit or Pittsburgh, Wilson can take pressure off guys like Cishek, Strop, Edwards and Morrow in tight games.
"You look at Wilson — that's what I'm talking about," Maddon said. "You saw with Justin [Tuesday]. That's so intriguing. He's been like that the last couple times out.
"If he's able to nail it down like that, he gives us so many more late-inning options, which he's done before. I believe it's there and it's going to happen, so I've said it before — he's a linchpin.
"If he really gets to that point — that strike-throwing with that incredibly lively stuff at home plate — he can make a big difference."