Cubs

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Cubs

Joe Maddon was just chilling in the first-base dugout, enjoying the Miami weather and taking in the undeniable beauty of Opening Day.

Then, suddenly, he was forced into action.

Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester was unable to make it out of the fourth inning against the Marlins and Maddon had to think quickly on how to save the first game for a team with World Series expectations.

Spring training was officially over.

"That was not what I was looking for. I'm not trying to match up in the fourth or fifth inning of the first game! I'm over there enjoying myself on Opening Day and now all of a sudden, I gotta start thinking a little bit," Maddon joked with reporters.

Yes, it was all in jest. Maddon and his coaching staff are always thinking ahead. Things rarely come as a total surprise for big-league managers...even on Day 1. They think about almost every scenario before it happens.

And Maddon is already thinking about August, September and October, even though the Cubs are just five games into the 2018 campaign.

A huge part of that is the craziness and "awkwardness" of an opening week where the Cubs' bullpen has emerged as the superstar during a 2-3 start.

The bullpen was Public Enemy No. 1 last postseason and for most of the offseason with Cubs fans. Theo Epstein's front office retooled the relievers, adding veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon.

Through five games, the bullpen has recorded 78 outs, one more than the Cubs' starting rotation (77 outs). 

 

That'll happen when you're forced to play 17-inning and 10-inning games on back-to-back nights and when a rotation that may be the best in baseball has just two quality starts once through the order.

"[The relievers have] proven their mettle already," Maddon said. "...There's a lot of confidence to be derived from these games from their part."

The Cubs skipper knows he's had no choice but to lean heavily on his bullpen so early and thus far, they've responded with a sparkling 0.69 ERA (2 ER in 26 innings) while allowing just 17 hits and 10 walks.

But wearing down the bullpen early is what got the Cubs in trouble last year. From Maddon to Epstein to the relievers themselves, there was an open admission that the bullpen was tired and worn out by the time the playoffs hit.

Maddon is always tuned in to getting his team to play at their peak performance in August and September and heading into the postseason on a high note.

Baseball has changed, however. With everybody around the league now "woke" to most pitchers' struggles facing an opposing lineup for the third time in an outing, managers are going to their bullpens earlier and earlier.

So this year, the Cubs hoped to go easy on their bullpen so they, too, would be fresh for what they hope is a run into the end of October. That should've been made easier with two guys — Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler — stretched out as starters coming from spring training and capable of pitching long relief outings.

It just hasn't worked out that way, though Maddon won't ignore the long game.

"I'm trying to keep in mind August and September," he said. "I want us to play well and strong in those months and we have. And if you don't keep an eye on it right now, you will not play well in those months.

"It's hard to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, especially when you play as deep into the year as we have. I think it's wise to keep an eye on the end of the year right now."

MLB teams typically get an off-day in the first few days of a new season, but the Cubs were thrown into the fire immediately with six scheduled games in six days. And the first three of those games featured four games' worth of innings with a pair of extra inning contests.

"The three games for the first three games of the year are so awkward," Maddon said. "The pitching didn't want to work. ... The bullpen was extended."

No pitcher was taxed more than Montgomery, even though he threw only 36 pitches. The 28-year-old pitcher worked each of the Cubs' first three games of the season, marking the first time he's ever worked three days in a row in the big leagues.

Montgomery said his arm still felt fine after those three games thanks to being stretched out as a starter in spring training and only needing to go one inning at a time in each outing. But this is also not something he wants to make a habit of all season to the point where he's completely worn down in September.

 

The Cubs did catch a break thanks to the weather in Cincinnati, however. A rainout Tuesday night affords them back-to-back off-days heading into a crucial early-season series with the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend.

Every Cubs reliever will be rested entering Thursday night as the team's first true test of 2018 will emerge against a retooled Brewers team that has its sights set on the division.