WASHINGTON – A Cubs bullpen that has been streaky and mostly shaky all season got its first closer controversy of the season Saturday during a 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.
Closer Hector Rondon, who has struggled much of the past four weeks, was yanked from the game by manager Joe Maddon after walking Anthony Rendon, the first batter he faced, to put the tying run at the plate.
Pedro Strop took over and retired the next three batters to earn his second save of the season.
And the ailings and failings of a work-in-progress bullpen took center stage again even in a victory earned mostly on the eight-inning strength of starter Jason Hammel’s right arm.
The Cubs already have added relief help from the outside and have kept themselves in the mix for free agent closer Rafael Soriano, who just switched agents (to manager Joe Maddon’s agency) and throw again for teams Thursday in the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, the pen’s most dominating performer from last year, got the quickest hook he can remember and is prepared to pitch anywhere but the ninth inning next time out.
“Obviously, he has not been as sharp lately as we know that he can be. For me it was about winning the game today,” Maddon said. “I’m not ordaining anybody new.
“It was a moment for today. Based on what I saw I thought it was the right thing to do.”
But Maddon suggested Rondon, who saved 29 games for a last-place team last season, might be demoted out of the ninth inning at least temporarily.
“I may look for an opportunity for him just to pitch more freely in a different moment just to work on some stuff,” said Maddon, who four weeks ago in Milwaukee criticized Rondon for sticking too stubbornly with his fastball and not mixing pitches – then watched him throw nothing but fastballs for nine pitches to Rendon.
Strop, Justin Grimm and even Travis Wood (who has one save) could be mixed and matched in the ninth if Maddon wants options for the next week or so.
Through 12 appearances this season, Rondon had a 1.50 ERA, 12 strikeouts with two walks, and six saves. In 12 games since then, starting with that May 8 game in Milwaukee, he’s given six runs, including two home runs and walked five (with nine Ks) in 12 1/3 innings (4.38 ERA).
He walked two batters the entire second half of last season.
“It’s just [about] being more assertive – more assertive, aggressive, confident,” Maddon said. “His stuff is great.
“This guy’s done a great job in the past finishing games off, and he’s going to do it again. But for right now I just thought that was the right thing to do today.”
Rondon said he agreed with the move Saturday even though he was “a little surprised,” and said his command hasn’t felt right lately.
“My job is to come in and get guys out,” he said. “For me, any situation they want to put me in, I’ll take it. If he wants to put me in the ninth inning, the fifth inning, the seventh inning, I don’t care. Every time I come in I need to get some people out.”