Cubs hope winning streak pays future dividends

Cubs hope winning streak pays future dividends
June 7, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Entering Saturday, the Cubs no longer had the worst winning percentage in the National League.

Granted, the team's .414 winning percentage is barely ahead of Arizona's .413 mark. And it's not like a four-game winning streak will vault the Cubs into legitimate contention for a playoff spot.

But winning doesn't happen overnight, so there is something encouraging to take away from a sweep of the New York Mets and Anthony Rizzo's walk-off home run against Miami on Friday. Eventually, the Cubs are going to have to win close, come-from-behind contests — like they've won this week — when the games actually matter.

"The only way you probably end up getting to a pennant race is winning games like (Friday's)," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "That's a part of it. Clubs that end up putting streaks together have somebody picking them up every single day in some way, shape or form."

[MORE: Rizzo does it again, blasts Cubs to fourth straight win]

On Friday it was Rizzo and the Cubs bullpen picking up closer Hector Rondon, who blew a three-run lead in the ninth to send the game into extra innings. Brian Schlitter — who hasn't allowed a run in his last 15 1/3 innings — threw two scoreless innings, and Carlos Villanueva followed that with another pair of scoreless frames.

A year ago, Rondon's blown save would've been emblematic of a bullpen that had the sixth-worst ERA in baseball. But the Cubs' bullpen has been solid in 2014, and dominant over the last two weeks.

Cubs relievers have averaged 1.74 walks per nine innings over the last 14 days, the second-best rate in baseball and a far cry from the 3.99 walks per nine innings the bullpen averaged last year. Lefty James Russell said the recent success has been pushed by more defined roles for each pitcher — i.e., knowing what inning/situation in which they'll enter a game — though defining those roles goes hand-in-hand with having success.

It's tough to ride any sort of winning momentum without a quality bullpen. Case in point: had Schlitter or Villanueva coughed up a run or two in extra innings Friday, Rizzo wouldn't have had a chance for his walk-off heroics.

[RELATED: Cubs stockpiling pitchers and catchers on Day 2 of MLB Draft]

But two weeks and a four-game winning streak hardly defines a team's season, let alone a bullpen that may only throw a couple of innings a night.

"It goes in stretches," Russell said. "You gotta ride the highs and stay up on the lows. It's hard to do but whenever it's going good you just embrace it and have fun with it."

That's the sort of mentality the Cubs are taking to this winning streak — embrace it and have fun with it. The games may not matter now but if the rebuild is successful, eventually Rizzo or Starlin Castro will have to deliver a big hit with a playoff spot on the line in September.

And it certainly doesn't hurt to bank the experience from a June walk-off for when those moments come.

"Victories, when they come late and you're overcoming certain obstacles so to speak, they're uplifting," Renteria said. "And obviously this week we've had a few games where we've come from behind or we've battled and continued to play. I think the most important thing is guys are showing that they're playing. Fortunately for us we've been able to come out on top."