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A return to Peak Pedro? Cubs’ Strop — aware of fan criticism — vows performance will improve

It has been by far the roughest of Strop’s seven seasons with the Cubs. The Dominican right-hander — a Cub for longer than anyone other than first baseman Anthony Rizzo — has a 2019 stat line that would make a cup-of-coffee reliever blush. But something clicked during his last outing, he says, sending his confidence soaring.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs
Pedro Strop (right) celebrates a victory with Javy Baez.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It could give the Cubs every bit as big of a jolt as the arrival of veteran Ben Zobrist. It might even do as much to improve their playoff chances as a return to the lineup by All-Star catcher Willson Contreras.

We are talking about seeing another glimpse of — if it comes, and that’s a mighty big “if” — Peak Pedro.

It has been by far the roughest of Pedro Strop’s seven seasons with the Cubs, but he’s keeping hope alive. The Dominican right-hander — a Cub for longer than anyone other than first baseman Anthony Rizzo — has a 2019 stat line that would make a cup-of-coffee reliever blush, but he has a feeling that’s about to change.

Are the Cubs going to get their “Stropy” back?

Not the one with a 5.68 ERA, a 1.326 WHIP, six blown saves — in short-term closer duty — and a sea of doubters on social media. Rather, the one who began the season with a 2.63 ERA and 1.02 WHIP and a reputation as one of the better relievers in team history.

A locked-in setup man for closer Craig Kimbrel? What a game-changer of a development that would be.

“I have confidence that I’m about to start pitching real good,” Strop, 34, said before the team hit the road for a critical three-game series against the Mets. “I have confidence that I’m going to be helping this team in the playoffs this year, and we’re going to win.”

Insert eye-roll emoji here, right?

If there were a hall of fame for cheerfulness and positivity, Strop would be a first-ballot guy. He has made a career of encouraging teammates behind closed doors. No player is more well-liked within the organization. When the club picked up Strop’s $6.25 million option for 2019, president Theo Epstein called him the “heartbeat” of the team and said he should have a role in the organization when he’s finished playing.

If this is Strop’s final year as a Cub, there are fans who’d probably say his contributions can’t end soon enough. Strop has seen enough comments and posts to be hurt by them.

“Yeah, there are fans being kind of rude,” he said. “I get it [that] they just want us to be good and help the team win, but this is what I want, too. I don’t want to do bad. That’s the only thing I don’t understand. Do they think I want to do bad? I love the Chicago Cubs.

“But I’m fine. I know, at the end of the road, they just want me to do good so the team can win.”

Strop has faced more than his share of obstacles since smacking a ground ball in a rare at-bat last Sept. 13 in Washington. He injured a hamstring on that play, missed the rest of the regular season and reappeared for a scoreless ninth inning against the Rockies in the National League wild-card game. Pitching in pain — Epstein called it “unbelievable” — he gave his team a chance to advance.

There have been two stints on the injured list in 2019, one before and one after the All-Star break. This, after his work in spring training was cut short.

“Crazy stuff,” he said.

On several occasions this season, it’s Strop who has needed the encouragement. Bullpen coach Lester Strode has been a close confidant. Teammates Javy Baez, Jose Quintana and Rizzo have said all the right things at all the right times.

An even bigger deal, potentially: The last time Strop pitched, Saturday against the Nationals, something clicked. After surrendering two walks and a double, he felt a shift into a familiar old gear as he retired three straight hitters.

“I feel like I found something,” he said. “I think I kind of found the good rhythm that I’ve been working to find for a long time. I think it’s going to be different now.”