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No relief in sight for Cubs and once-strong bullpen

"My fastball doesn't have that life that I need," says Cubs reliever Pedro Strop, who leads the majors with 16 appearances.

MILWAUKEE – The bullpen problems continued for the Cubs again Friday night, and now they’re starting to catch up to the top late-inning guys.

The Cubs held on for a 7-6 win over the Brewers but not before Zac Rosscup, Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon all contributed to turning 5-2 and 7-3 leads into a nail-biter.

“We really have to get our bullpen in order. Guys are just not pitching up to their abilities,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But they will. They will.”

The bullpen was a significant factor in losing three of four to the division leading Cardinals in St. Louis leading into this weekend set in Milwaukee.

After going 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 58 2/3 innings through 19 games this season, the bullpen is 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in 27 over the last nine games – with higher walk and hit rates and blowing two of three save chances.

“Our bullpen guys have got to get this done,” Maddon said. “And you’ve got to put them in situations that are good for them to accomplish these things. And I think we have.

“Now the next step is to get them to go out there and breathe normally and get this done.”

The Cubs responded early in the week by activating 2014 workhorse Justin Grimm from the disabled list and adding recently re-acquired lefty James Russell from AAA Iowa in a series of roster moves that ultimately resulted in Maddon having an extra (eighth) arm in the bullpen.

But the struggles have continued, and of more recent concern are those of setup ace Pedro Strop – who didn’t allow a run in his first 12 appearances but has given up six on four walks and seven hits in his last four outings.

That included a run-scoring double to the first batter he faced in the eighth Friday, Khris Davis, followed by an intentional walk before striking out Martin Maldonado on a 2-2 slider.

Strop is tied for the major league lead in appearances with 16 (a pace that would lead to 93 over a full season).

He’s pitched five of the past eight days, including a stretch of three in four and admitted on Friday night, “My fastball doesn’t have that life that I need, and we’re working on it.”

Davis’ double came on a fastball up in the zone.

When asked if the workload early in the season was contributing to that, Strop seemed to allude to it before catching himself and saying, “No, I don’t want to say that. … I don’t want to use that as a complaint.

“Maybe somebody else says it. But not me. I just like to battle, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Maddon acknowledged the concern over Strop’s workload earlier in the week as the Cubs struggled to get an injury-hampered bullpen back in line. It was part of the rationale for adding the extra arm.

But even after idle games two of the previous three days, Strop still wasn’t close to his best Friday. And closer Hector Rondon struggled even worse in the ninth Friday, giving up a pair of walks and a three-run homer to Ryan Braun – Maddon blaming Rondon’s reluctance to go to another pitch when his fastball wasn’t working.

The Cubs needed every bit of their four-homer offensive production and every bit of what Hammel provided to survive Friday’s late-inning pitching problems with a victory.

It kept the Cubs from falling back to .500 for the first time since they were 2-2. But the winning isn’t sustainable without stability in the bullpen.

“We’re not going anywhere without a bullpen being very dominant, actually,” Maddon said. “You have to have a dominant bullpen to win 90-plus games, and that’s our goal.”