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Cubs’ bullpen carries the load — again — in 5-2 win over Nationals

Starter Trevor Williams was good, but Justin Steele, Craig Kimbrel and the pen were even better — 4 1⁄3 scoreless innings, one hit allowed — and Ian Happ’s two homers made the difference.

Cubs catcher P.J. Higgins congratulates closer Craig Kimbrel after Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ 5-2 victory over the Nationals at Wrigley Field.
Cubs catcher P.J. Higgins congratulates closer Craig Kimbrel after Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ 5-2 victory over the Nationals at Wrigley Field.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos

Once upon a time, starting pitchers would be miffed to get pulled with two outs in the fifth inning and their team in the lead. But when the going got tough, Cubs starter Trevor Williams gladly gave up the ball to manager David Ross, who handed it to a red-hot bullpen that closed out a 5-2 victory over the Nationals on Thursday at Wrigley Field.

It wasn’t much of a jam, either. Williams had a runner on second with two outs in the fifth with a 4-2 lead and Juan Soto up — a high-leverage moment today that used to be referred to as “the fifth inning.” Left-hander Justin Steele (2-0) bailed Williams out, walking Soto and striking out Josh Bell to end it.

Wrigley Field exhaled, and the bullpen did the rest. Steele, Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and closer Craig Kimbrel combined for 4 1/3 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief to close out a magnificent series for the pen — 16 1/3 scoreless innings with 11 baserunners allowed.

Williams (no decision) was just happy to have a hand in it.

“Yeah, it was the time of the ballgame that called for that,” said Williams, who allowed first-inning home runs to Bell and Kyle Schwarber but nothing else. “Steele’s throwing really well and especially lefty-lefty against a hitter like Soto with the wind blowing out, we don’t want to take that chance of a tie ballgame. I understand it. And in the end, it ended up helping us win a game today. It’s a win for everybody.”

Williams deserved more credit than he got. After allowing the first-inning home runs, his ERA in his last four starts was 12.10. But he settled down to give the offense a chance to contribute. And after Ian Happ’s two-run homer off Joe Ross in the third inning gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead, Williams didn’t flinch.

Ross could have let Williams work out of his own trouble that early in the game — a valuable lesson for any starting pitcher. But he had a game to win.

“Trying to manage the game the best way I know how to give us a chance to win,” Ross said. “That’s a nice spot for the lefties. Justin was fresh. I have confidence in him [as] somebody who can give me . . . five, six, try to get to seven. Two outs in the fifth . . . I think I’d be kicking myself if Soto hits a home run as good a player as he is. And he had already seen Trevor twice. Just trying to nip that in the bud.”

You can’t blame Ross for leaning on a bullpen that has been strong all season, but especially so in the four-game series against the Nationals. While the starters had a 5.49 ERA and 1.525 WHIP in the series (12 earned runs in 19 2/3 innings), the bullpen had a 0.00 ERA and 0.735 WHIP. Nine relievers participated in that production, including newcomers Keegan Thompson and Tommy Nance.

“They’re doing a nice job,” Ross said. “You’ve got young guys throwing the ball really well. We’ve got veterans in the back end doing a phenomenal job. They know their roles. They’re piecing things together. They’re throwing strikes. I have a ton of confidence in them.”

Eventually, the starters are going to have to carry a bigger share of the load. Cubs president Jed Hoyer was saying just that before the game when asked about the impressive development of the bullpen.

“Obviously, the bullpen is being pushed hard,” Hoyer said. “Getting 12-plus outs a night is something that’s going to wear down a bullpen — we have to be aware of that. But the way they’ve thrown . . . it’s been outstanding. I can’t say enough about the work those guys [have done] and also the coaching staff getting them to this point.”