MESA, Ariz. — Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, the two most important late-inning pitchers in the Cubs’ 2015 playoff run, had a right to wonder how much faith the team still had in them after the World Series last season.
And former closer Rondon absorbed another shot barely a month later, when the Cubs traded for Royals closer Wade Davis, bumping Rondon to setup man for the second time in four months.
“It was kind of weird,” Rondon said of his reaction to the trade. “But at the same time, I was happy because he’s a really good closer, too, and our bullpen’s going to be way better.”
And if that means Rondon — who had a 1.45 ERA and 62 saves from the 2014 All-Star break until the 2016 break — has to wait until next year to close again, so be it.
“I have to take it,” he said. “I don’t have anything to say on that. And I agree [with them]. They did it, and I have to take it for now.”
Rondon and Strop, the Cubs’ primary setup man the last three seasons, say they’re all about staying healthy this season after late-season injuries in 2016. They say they’ll do whatever is asked to help win another championship. They say they’re moving past whatever feelings they had about their lack of use at times in the postseason. And they say they’re happy and healthy heading into a new spring.
“I have a tremendous amount of trust for both of those guys,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”
The power of the team’s championship is hard to overstate on multiple levels.
One involves its power to soothe many of the emotional bumps and bruises that arose when Maddon leaned so hard on closer Aroldis Chapman, especially in the final two games of the World Series, while excluding others at times, even with big leads.
“When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you’ve got to put personal feelings aside on both sides of it,” Maddon said, “whether you’re managing it or playing it.”
When it comes to Rondon and Strop, two things seem certain:
First, both fumed privately about getting relegated to the wings for much of the postseason, especially in the World Series, according to sources during the offseason.
Second, both remain major forces, even in a bullpen that’s much deeper than at this time last year.
“It was a little difficult because I wasn’t doing that kind of role that I was for a couple years,” Strop said of the change after returning in September from knee and groin injuries. “But it’s something that you’ve got to get used to and understand the situations and understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to. I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”
Rondon, who missed four weeks across two stretches because of a triceps injury in August, echoed the sentiments.
“He’s the boss, and we talked already about that,” Rondon said of Maddon’s World Series pitching decisions that left him on the bullpen bench the final three games. “He made the decisions, and we won. That is the more important thing for us.”
Communication certainly matters. The relievers were told that Chapman was the only one in the bullpen with a set role in the postseason, that everybody else had to be ready at all times.
“Nobody was surprised,” Strop said.
In the end, they all claim a substantial part of baseball history — and championship rings. And they embrace the favorite’s role to do it again.
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