Don't look now, but the bullpen has actually morphed into a strength of this Cubs team.
Even though things got hairy in the 15th inning as Sunday afternoon turned into Sunday night, the Cubs relief corps still hung on by the skin of their teeth.
That wild 15th inning casts a bit of a darker shadow over the bullpen as a whole, but remember, this is a group that held the Diamondbacks scoreless for almost an entire game's worth of innings — from Brad Brach replacing Jose Quintana with two outs in the sixth inning to two outs in the 15th when Kyle Ryan gave up a 2-run single to Caleb Joseph.
The bullpen has become a popular punching bag for the 2019 Cubs, but they entered play Sunday leading baseball with a 2.01 ERA since April 7, the final day of the Cubs' season-opening nine-game road trip. That number actually improved slightly even with the 2 15th-inning runs and the Cubs have a sizable lead over the next-closest team — the Diamondbacks, coincidentally, who boast a 2.36 ERA.
It helps that the Cubs bullpen also had a huge assist from the starting rotation in that the relievers faced the fewest batters in the league over the last three weeks before Sunday's marathon affair. Tyler Chatwood has been a surprise contributor to both areas, helping to beat Arizona with 6 shutout innings at Wrigley last Sunday and then beating Arizona again with 1.1 shutout innings pitched plus a double and the game-winning run scored this Sunday.
On that nine-game season-opening road trip, only the Washington Nationals had a worse bullpen ERA than the Cubs (8.37) and only the Kansas City Royals walked a higher percentage of hitters than the Cubs (16.4 percent).
Cubs relievers still have a problem with the free pass, but they're certainly moving in the right direction and a lot of success has followed.
It's no coincidence, then, that the Cubs have not lost a series since that opening road trip and are 12-5 in that stretch.
"As tough as our start was, it could be good for us in the long run," Theo Epstein said last week. "We got tested early. You find out a lot about individuals and a team when there's adversity. Even though it's early, even though we've all been through it before, when you get off to a really rough first week of the season in a big market, there are a lot of doubters. It can push guys; it can test guys.
"I think they've certainly responded the right way by recommitting to the routines and the foundation and each other and pulling out of it. It's a real positive sign. Let's be honest — it was really our pitching the first week or 10 days of the season that was putting us in that destabilized mode and then the pitching's been outstanding since then."
Epstein gave credit to the Cubs' entire run prevention department, from pitching coach Tommy Hottovy on down to associate pitching, catching and strategy coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Brad Mills plus catcher Willson Contreras, who has caught nearly every inning since Victor Caratini went down with a hand injury more than two weeks ago.
"No victory laps or anything like that, but it doesn't just stabilize overnight," Epstein said. "Those guys put a lot of hard work in to get us on the right track."
It's even more impressive the Cubs have righted the ship in the bullpen without some of their projected top performers. Carl Edwards Jr. was sent down to the minor leagues to readjust his physical and mental mechanics before the Cubs even played a game at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is still working his way back from a lat injury that put him on the injured list on that season-opening road trip.
The Cubs also began the season thinking right now (the end of April) would be about the time they'd be getting closer Brandon Morrow back. He was expected to miss roughly the first month of the season while rehabbing from minor offseason elbow surgery, but he suffered a setback and is currently shut down and won't pick up a baseball for another couple of weeks.
Epstein said the Cubs are still "in a diagnostic state" with Morrow, trying to ascertain why he's struggled to bounce back from throwing sessions despite nine months away from the field and the November debridement procedure on his elbow.
With all that time off and a surgical procedure added to Morrow's already-lengthy injury history, it's fair to question if he will ever throw a single pitch this season. But Epstein said the Cubs expect him to throw at some point in "a number of weeks" once they figure out what course of treatment to go through.
However, this Morrow setback didn't suddenly send a shudder through the Cubs' business operations department and convince them to throw the budget out the window and create room for the likes of free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel.
The Cubs will still look to add reinforcements to the bullpen whenever necessary, but don't expect that to be Kimbrel. They haven't been afraid to be aggressive within their own system, like plucking Dillon Maples from the Triple-A bullpen in exchange for Randy Rosario on Friday (or adding Ryan and Webster after Edwards and Montgomery went down after the season's first week).
"Nothing's changed on the bullpen front," Epstein said. "We recognize this is a year where we're gonna have to make a lot of important calls in-season and pick the right guys and put them in the right position to succeed and I think things have really started to stabilize in the bullpen.
"There are a lot of really encouraging signs. [Brandon] Kintzler as an example — the transformation that he's made with a lot of hard work this winter and spring training to become really reliable with what he brings to the table at this point. That's someone who's been here, who's made positive changes. And then Kyle Ryan is somebody who we talked about as important depth in Triple-A. He's come up and provided an important boost and he's done it in a way that gives us reason to believe it's sustainable.
"So that's important. We'll continue to try to help guys be their best selves, make important calls when we feel change is needed and of course look outside the organization as well as inside to try to find the right combination."
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