Cubs activate Hector Rondon as playoff bullpen begins to take shape

Cubs activate Hector Rondon as playoff bullpen begins to take shape

MILWAUKEE — For the Cubs and Hector Rondon, September will be all about staying healthy and getting ready for October, when they believe their bullpen will be able to match up with anyone.

The Cubs activated Rondon before Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, adding a one-time 30-save closer to help set up for Aroldis Chapman.

“I feel really good — I’m healthy right now,” said Rondon, who had been on the disabled list with a strained right triceps since Aug. 17 and allowed one run on two hits in the seventh inning Tuesday. “I feel a little stronger, too, so I’m ready to go.”

Manager Joe Maddon said Rondon wouldn’t necessarily slide back into a specific eighth-inning role or only high-leverage situations. With a 15 1/2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, the Cubs have the luxury of keeping Rondon on a schedule, resting Chapman in certain save situations and not pushing Carl Edwards Jr. too hard during his rookie season.

Assuming Rondon (18 saves, 2.47 ERA) returns at full strength and Pedro Strop (21 holds, 2.89 ERA) recovers from a torn meniscus in his left knee and a strained right groin, the Cubs will have multiple options in front of Chapman, one of the game’s most intimidating closers with his 105-mph fastball.

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Right-handers Edwards and Justin Grimm would also appear to be locks for the playoff bullpen, with veteran Joe Smith on the bubble trying to bring the funk that’s allowed him to carve out a 10-year career in the big leagues.

Assuming the Cubs construct an 11-man pitching staff in a best-of-five series, Jason Hammel could be on the outside looking in during that round. The Cubs have left-handed (Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood, Rob Zastryzny) and right-handed (Trevor Cahill) swingmen who can throw multiple innings.

“It depends on how many you want to keep,” Maddon said. “You may actually end up with less pitchers and more (position) players in a shorter series. It’s possible.

“When you get to that point, I think you really have to consider who you’re playing and what the composition of that team looks like and all the matchups (that could) occur. We’ll have a lot of difficult decisions to make based on the versatility and how good a lot of our guys are. (But) you got plenty of time to worry about stuff like that. (And) I’m not worried about it.”

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.