Pitching in for Cubs: Early injuries test NL’s top pen

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Hector Rondon closes for the top-ranked bullpen in the National League.

Just how strong and deep is a Cubs’ bullpen that has been the backbone of a 5-3 start that has them two games over .500 and in first place for the first time in six years?

They’re about to find out.

For all the attention on Kris Bryant’s potential change of address heading into Friday’s series opener against the San Diego Padres, the bullpen changes figure to have the biggest, most immediate impact on how well the Cubs can sustain an impressive start to the season.

Right-hander Neil Ramirez, who as a rookie last year quietly performed better than most relievers in the National League, is facing a likely move to the disabled list after leaving Wednesday’s game with shoulder soreness and undergoing an MRI Thursday.

This just a week after right-hander Justin Grimm, the workhorse setup man from last year’s pen, went on the DL because of forearm inflammation.

Suddenly a bullpen manager Joe Maddon has referred to so far this season as “spectacular” and “wonderful” gets a significant test of its self-proclaimed depth with two of its top four returning pitchers sidelined.

“I don’t like to go to Negative Town too quickly. But we’ll see,” Maddon said Wednesday night after Ramirez’s issue.

The value of the Cubs bullpen eight games into the season is hard to underestimate – especially given the middling performance (3-3, 4.50) of a starting rotation that has averaged just 5 2/3 innings a start.

“I think our bullpen’s been a big story so far for us,” said team president Theo Epstein, who added World Series veterans Jason Motte and Phil Coke to this year’s mix.

In fact, the Cubs have the top-ranked bullpen in the National League (1.38 ERA), second in the majors to only the vaunted Kansas City Royals’ pen (1.11).

Cubs relievers have produced 25 scoreless outings in 29 appearances, with Motte and Coke combining for a 9-for-9 run and even the beleaguered former starter Edwin Jackson adding turning in a 31-pitch scoreless appearance in Colorado.

The bullpen is the only reason the Cubs had a chance to come back Sunday in Denver for a 6-5 victory on Dexter Fowler’s two-run homer in the ninth – after starter Kyle Hendricks allowed five early runs in a short start.

Then Monday, big-money ace Jon Lester put the Cubs in a 6-3 hole in the sixth inning, but after four relievers pitched a scoreless inning each, the Cubs walked off in the 10th for a 7-6 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

“That was a huge part of winning the game [Monday], with guys picking right up where they left off, which is a great sign,” Epstein said. “That’s not always the case. And after Jason Motte had his struggles in spring training, he’s been fantastic, and Phil Coke showing 93 [mph] with huge life – which is a big plus for us to have from the left side. So it’s been really nice early. Real nice.”

Closer Hector Rondon and eighth-inning man Pedro Strop have combined for nine strikeouts and just one walk in nine scoreless innings, looking like the late-inning power tandem that got better as last season progressed.

The Cubs already have tapped AAA Iowa twice for bullpen depth, including left-hander Zac Rosscup as an eighth reliever when infielder Tommy La Stella went on the DL Tuesday. He retired four of the five batters he faced, including strikeouts of leadoff man Billy Hamilton and slugger Jay Bruce.

“These guys have been really, wildly good right now,” Maddon said.

With the red-hot Padres, followed by a seven-game trip to Pittsburgh and hitter-friendly Cincinnati, they’ll find out fast just how good.

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