MILWAUKEE — No Cubs position group was more maligned than the bullpen late last season, but the narrative has changed quickly around the relief corps.
The Cubs bullpen has been a source of steady strength in the first week-plus of action while the team has gotten off to a disappointing 3-4 start.
Entering play Saturday, Cubs relievers led Major League Baseball with a microscopic 0.84 ERA and .491 OPS against in 32.1 innings. The last time a Cubs bullen got off to this good of a start was 1945, when that group posted a 0.72 ERA through their first seven games with an appearance.
Even with a run allowed Saturday, Cubs relievers still own a 1.02 ERA.
Friday was a perfect example of the bullpen's impact, even if they wound up saddled with the loss.
After Kyle Hendricks gave up a pair of two-run homers in the fifth inning to allow the Brewers to tie the game at 4, the Cubs bullpen stepped up to keep the game even to the very end.
Brian Duensing allowed the first two batters in the sixth inning to reach base, but teamed up with Pedro Strop and Justin Wilson to strand the runners at second and third.
Wilson came on to blow 96 mph fastballs by Travis Shaw and looked very, very good again for three batters before the wheels came off with back-to-back-to-back walks, giving Cubs fans flashbacks of his 2017 season. But Steve Cishek came in to twirl a breaking ball by Lorenzo Cain and another threat was dodged.
"When [Wilson] came in, I was looking to get four outs out of somebody," Joe Maddon said. "And it ended up being him the way it played. Started out great. I mean, right up to [Brewers first baseman Jesus] Aguilar.
"It was great; he was outstanding. I do believe that's going to be in the rearview mirror. I don't think that's gonna be any kind of negative carry over effect.
"I think he's fine, but he was outstanding and then all of a sudden, he lost the plate a little bit. But the way he came in and got Shaw, the ball was jumping."
Carl Edwards Jr. had a sparkling eighth inning before Mike Montgomery gave up a one-out walk in the ninth inning that came back to haunt the Cubs as the winning run two batters later.
The walks were a major concern for the Cubs bullpen last year and they have doled out 15 free passes in 32.1 innings this season, but they've also permitted essentially nothing else.
Through seven games, here's how the bullpen compared to the starting rotation:
Cubs SPs: 36.2 IP, 20 ER, 62 baserunners, 24 Ks, 4.91 ERA, 1.58 WHIP
Cubs RPs: 32.1 IP, 3 ER, 37 baserunners, 35 K, 0.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
"What our bullpen's been able to do, lights out again," Hendricks said after Friday's game. "It's been really fun to watch them lately."
Part of the impact of the bullpen is how much it's been used. Through five games, Cubs relievers actually had recorded more outs (78) than starting pitchers (77) thanks in large part to the 17-inning game in Miami.
It's also impressive that the bullpen has done this all without a contribution from its closer and highest-paid member.
Brandon Morrow was the big relief addition over the winter, but through the first seven games, he's thrown just two pitches and that was serving up Miguel Rojas' walk-off hit in that 17-inning ballgame in Miami.
It's not for lack of trying. Morrow's been up several times getting warm, but the situation in a game hasn't presented itself yet. The Cubs haven't had a save chance yet and have only three holds as a team through the seven games.
Still, the Cubs want to get Morrow out there one way or another and that could come Saturday against the Brewers.