Cubs know they can ‘play with big boys’ but not so sure about closer role

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WASHINGTON – The Cubs are looking more like the St. Louis Cardinals every day. How much of that’s a good thing for the young Cubs might take at least a few weeks to find out.

So far, it manifested itself in a toe-to-toe showdown with the Washington Nationals that ended in the Cubs winning three of four games against the team some consider the National League favorites.

And this: When Sunday’s 6-3 victory ended at Nationals Park, it was former Cardinals closer Jason Motte, not Hector Rondon, securing the final out – and his first save since Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for the Cardinals.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who downplayed the idea of a closer controversy when he yanked Rondon out of Saturday’s ninth inning after just one batter, used Rondon to pitch the “less stressful” eighth Sunday – and afterward said he’s undecided on who gets the next save opportunity.

“I’ll just wait till that day,” said Maddon, who more than once employed a closer-by-committee approach while managing in Tampa Bay. “I’m not opposed to that method, either.”

Rondon, the closer since a dominant second half in 2014, said he was fine being used in any game situation, and that Maddon talked to him about that role before the game.

“We talked about how I feel mentally,” said Rondon, who said Sunday was a good day for that and his command. “We’re on the same page. He said I don’t know if you’ll be like the closer or I’ll put you in the game in [another] situation.

“I’ll come into the game in any situation. That’s all it’s about for me.”

Motte, who said he felt comfortable in the familiar ninth inning, said he’s prepared for any situation, too. He also said after missing more than a year recovering from Tommy John surgery, returning to the closer role sounds good.

“It’s what I had done before I got hurt,” said Motte, who led the NL in saves in 2012 and is throwing as hard now as he ever has. “I guess I’d be lying if I said [I didn’t want it]. You always want to go back out to get back to where you were before you got hurt.”

Maddon also has the closer option of Pedro Strop, who was unavailable Sunday after earning Saturday’s save.

“How’s, like, be ready to pitch in the last three innings?” Maddon said. “If you’re keeping score you know when the seventh, eighth and ninth is popping up. … Just be ready.”

The Cubs certainly looked ready the last four days against the Nationals – something that could not be said of their lost series earlier in the week against a dysfunctional Miami Marlins team.

It’s been an ongoing issue for a team with big expectations that has lost series in the last five weeks to losing teams from Miami, Arizona and Milwaukee (twice) – while beating Washington four of seven overall, splitting a series against defending AL champ Kansas City and and sweeping a division-leading Mets team in four games during that stretch.

“This validates what I’ve been saying all along,” Maddon said of beating the Nationals three of four. “I know we can play with the big boys in this league.

“But you’ve got to prove it. We have played less effectively against teams that have been struggling this year. We’ve been playing well against teams that are doing well. And we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to play well against everybody.”

On this day, the lineup finally broke out for 14 hits – the first time since Wednesday they had more hits than strikeouts.

Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the 2-3 spots combined to go 5-for-7 with two walks and four runs scored. And Chris Denorfia in his first day back from the disabled list started in right field and delivered three hits.

So did the Cubs make a statement by taking it to the Nationals and knocking them out of first place in the NL East?

“I don’t think so,” said Rizzo, who takes a career-high 12-game hitting streak into Tuesday’s opener of a two-game series in Detroit. “We played well here, and we just have to keep playing well. We have a big test with Detroit coming up. But it’s nice to go into the off day winning a series like this.”

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