PHILADELPHIA – If it’s not the Cubs’ biggest concern heading into the playoffs, then it might be second only to keeping Crane Kenney away from the Greek priests and holy water this time around.
A Cubs bullpen that has held the end of games together just long enough to help put the Cubs into playoff position more than five months into the season has looked nothing like a playoff pen as the weather cools toward fall.
It’s one of the reasons rookie Carl Edwards Jr. made his second big-league appearance Sunday in the eighth inning of a one-run game – with mixed results in what he turned into a 7-4 loss to the Phillies.
“It was important that we got to see him in that moment right there, just to try to evaluate going down the stretch,” Maddon said of the rookie, who shows a mid-90s fastball and command of a big-league curve. “I liked what I saw. His stuff’s really good. And it seemed like his heartbeat was a little bit slower today.”
But until he can be trusted to spot a fastball, Maddon said he plans to keep running out Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Sunday’s designated closer Fernando Rodney with close games on the line late.
“It’s just getting them to get their confidence,” manager Joe Maddon said of that crew, which failed to close out important games in St. Louis Wednesday and Philadelphia Saturday night as the Cubs settled for a 4-3 start to this 11-game trip.
“Listen, most all of them are having really good years,” he said. “We’ve just got to get their confidence right. And try to avoid overusing them.”
Maddon checked about a month ago to compare how hard he’s leaned on his pen guys compared to other teams in the league and found the Cubs’ usage was comparable to most (eighth in the National league with 449 2/3 innings from relievers). Both teams they’re chasing in the division – the Cardinals and Pirates – have used more.
The issue seems more too do with the personnel, the depth and the experience level as the stakes rise with every week they play.
Over the last 19 games, dating to the start of last month’s West Coast trip, the pen has a 5.13 ERA with five blown saves. Of the nine saves in that span, three of the chances were created by bullpen meltdowns in would-be routs.
Neither Rondon nor Grimm has pitched in the postseason. Strop has pitched two playoff innings with Baltimore, but has struggled more than any of the late-inning guys lately (especially against the Cardinals).
And Maddon said former Cardinals World Series pitcher Jason Motte (shoulder) – briefly his closer this season – isn’t expected back.
After that it’s rookies, long guys and castoffs in the position area Maddon has repeatedly said is critical to any playoff run.
The classic recent example is last year’s Kansas City Royals, who rode a dominant three-man back end the bullpen all the way to the World Series.
“I’m really confident when you talk Grimm, Strop, Ronny, and now Fernando in there,” Maddon said. “I like that a lot actually. And I think [Clayton] Richard can be pertinent within that group also.
“We haven’t arrived at the Royals’ abilities or consistency there, but I think physically we’re there.”
If necessary, does Edwards have the time to win his way into the “impactful” role Maddon suggested he might before last week’s debut?
“I think the same thing happened with the Angels with Frankie,” said Maddon, who as a bench coach with the 2002 Angels watched Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez debut in September and become a dominant factor in 11 playoff games on the way to a World Series title that fall.
“It started happening about this time. He started getting more play, and then all of a sudden he started making a name for himself going into the playoffs and then in the playoffs.”