Randy Rosario has wasted no time endearing himself to the Cubs and their fans

Randy Rosario has wasted no time endearing himself to the Cubs and their fans

ST. LOUIS — It didn't take long for Randy Rosario to endear himself to the Cubs clubhouse.

It helps when you find instant success (a 0.68 ERA), but the results haven't stopped the 24-year-old left-handed pitcher from trying to learn all he can while he's up here in Chicago.

Take, for example, when he discovered this week what GOAT means:

Rosario's already carved out a special place in the heart of the Cubs fanbase and he's only been up here for two weeks.

He's also turned the heads of the front office with his immediate confidence.

"He's got good stuff that moves a lot," Theo Epstein said. "A lot of downward movement. It gives him a big margin for error to go attack hitters, even at this level. He's making the most of this opportunity."

Rosario is a big part of the group of "Iowa pitchers" who have done an incredible job filling out the last couple spots of the Cubs' bullpen in Chicago this season.

Selected off waivers from the Minnesota Twins in November, Rosario sported an 0.47 ERA in Triple-A Iowa to begin the year before coming up and dominating at the big-league level.

All told between the two levels, he's allowed just 2 earned runs on 15 hits in 32.2 innings, good for an 0.55 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. He also hasn't allowed a homer at either stop.

Rosario doesn't have any special reason why he's found such immediate success in the Cubs organization beyond the fact that he's just comfortable here. He's credited Pedro Strop, in particular, with mentoring him but loved the way everybody has treated him from the minor-league staff to the big-league players, coaches, front office members, etc. 

"As soon as you feel comfortable, everything's gonna be fine," Rosario said. "If I feel comfortable, this is what I can do."

Rosario, who signed out of the Dominican Republic and spent 7 years in the Twins organization, is under Cubs team control through the 2023 season. He gives the Cubs a lot of options out of the bullpen both as a lefty and as a guy who can throw multiple innings if needed.

He's obviously not going to have an 0.68 ERA forever, but the Cubs believe he can continue to find success in the majors.

"He's throwing a lot of strikes," Maddon said. "A lot of chases off the strikes. A lot of movement, really good movement on all his pitches. And his demeanor has been really calm. 

"There's nothing overwhelming for him right now. I love that. Because of that, I think it can continue. It's not his first rodeo. He's been around a little bit even though he's not been in the big leagues a lot. 

"He's got a lot of self-confidence and I really like that about him."

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Only Jon Lester could get away with this.

Lester had just delivered pitch No. 99 on a 93-degree night in St. Louis with sweltering humidity.

As Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna rounded first base and headed back to the bag after a base hit, Joe Maddon and Cubs trainer P.J. Mainville were headed out of the dugout to go talk to Lester.

But the Cubs ace and three-time World Series champ waved them off with his glove. 

With that, Maddon and Mainville spun around and headed right back to their posts in the third-base dugout.

Three pitches later, Lester had gotten through the sixth inning and had his quality start.

A moment like that signified the clout Lester carries within the Cubs clubhouse, but it also shows just how different this season has been for the 34-year-old after a rough 2017 campaign.

Lester still finished 13-8 last year and made 32 starts, but he posted his highest ERA (4.33) and WHIP (1.32) since 2012 and his lowest inning total (180.2) since he became a full-time member of a big-league rotation in 2008.

Now, Lester is making one hell of a case for the National League All-Star team, going 8-2 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a stabilizing factor in what has been a tumultuous year for the Cubs rotation.

"Yeah, [I feel] completely different," Lester said. "I don't know why, but just wasn't able to recover as well last year as I have in the past. This year, for whatever reason, able to throw my bullpens and take it into my starts.

"Just feel better physically, able to repeat my mechanics and feel strong out there. Just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully ride it out."

Maddon believed Friday's outing was the best stuff Lester has displayed all year.

Lester didn't necessarily agree, but did concede that it was probably his best outing for his cutter and he loved the late movement he had on that pitch diving in on right-handed hitters.

Maddon also loved how Lester pitched around a couple of Cubs defensive miscues — Kris Bryant committed an error in the second inning and Addison Russell took too much time on a ground ball in the third inning, allowing Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha to reach on an infield single.

Both times, Lester worked through it without any issues and even came into the dugout to tell Bryant he was impressed with the Cubs third baseman keeping the hot-shot grounder in front of him, even if it was an error. If that ball gets by Bryant, the Cardinals have runners on second and third with two outs and it completely changes what Lester can do on the mound, worried about a basehit scoring two runs instead of one or a wild pitch gifting the opposition a free tally.

Maybe that interaction in the dugout helped give Bryant a little boost, as he ended his month-long homerless drought in his next at-bat the following half inning.

This is Year 4 of Lester's six-year, $155 million deal and he's been everything the Cubs have hoped for and more, from his performance on the mound to his impact in the clubhouse.

Where would they be without him this year?

While Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have put pressure on the bullpen with short outings this season, Lester has pitched at least 6 innings in 6 straight games and has not had an outing shorter than 5 innings since Opening Day (3.1 innings).

"He just continues to trend in the right direction," Maddon said."

The Cubs have more bullpen reinforcements waiting in the wings

The Cubs have more bullpen reinforcements waiting in the wings

The Cubs have found a way to get the absolute most out of their bullpen already this year, but they haven't yet tapped into all of their resources.

For all the success of the guys who have been shuttled from Triple-A Iowa to Chicago, the Cubs' most enticing young relief prospect still hasn't even thrown an inning in the big leagues this season.

Dillon Maples turned heads last year with his triple-digit velocity and a dyanmic slider.

He struck out 100 batters in 63.1 minor-league innings in the Cubs system, enjoying a breakthrough season at age 25 after years of issues with injuries and ineffectiveness since the Cubs made him a 14th-round draft pick in 2011.

The Cubs gave Maples above-slot money to sign with the team out of Pinecrest High School (North Carolina) seven years ago and he finally put it all together last season to rocket through the system, making stops at Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa before getting to Chicago.

With the big-league club, Maples was unimpressive — allowing 6 runs on 6 walks and 6 hits but did manage to strike out 11 batters in 5.1 innings in his first taste of life in The Show.

Entering 2018, Maples had an outside chance at making the big-league bullpen out of spring training but instead went to Iowa for more seasoning.

He got out to a rough start (5.93 ERA, 2.05 WHIP, 17 BBs in 13.2 IP) but has since found his groove.

Over the last three-and-a-half weeks, Maples has not allowed a run in 8 appearances, permitting only 3 hits and a pair of walks in 8 innings. He's also struck out 16 batters and has multiple whiffs in 6 straight outings.

The bullpen was a hot topic of conversation with Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein earlier this week in Milwaukee and the two Cubs leaders each mentioned Maples specifically.

Maddon said Maples' name has not come up just yet as a guy that could be added to the bullpen soon, but Epstein admitted Maples is "locked in in Iowa the last couple weeks and he hasn't even had his opportunity [in Chicago] yet."

Maples' promotion to the majors may not be imminent but with the shuttle between Des Moines and Chicago in full effect, his turn at Wrigley Field shouldn't be too far off, especially if he keeps pitching this way.

The Cubs also have another under-the-radar relief arm coming up through their system in Dakota Mekkes, who became Maples' teammate a week ago.

Mekkes was a 10th-round pick out of Michigan State University in 2016 and has a ridiculous 1.05 ERA and 0.97 WHIP across the last three seasons as a reliever in the Cubs system.

Mekkes — a 23-year-old with an intimdating frame (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) — carries a 0.68 season ERA in 2018 between Double-A Tennessee (16 games) and Triple-A Iowa (3 games). He's whiffed 36 batters in 26.2 innings while allowing only 12 hits. 

The big right-hander fits the bill as a guy who can go multiple innings if need be and has been heralded as a pitcher with great deception and command that drew a loose comparison to David Robertson, Drew Storen and Addison Reed two years ago when he was drafted.

The majors may be too ambitious for Mekkes in 2018, but he should be on the radar of Cubs fans as part of the next wave of pitching from the farm system.