Chicago aims to show sustained success after dropping series
By Mike Bauman
There are no sure things with three-fourths of the baseball season remaining. But when it comes to the Chicago Cubs, there are few uncertainties.
The Cubs have had some recent difficulties, dropping two out of three to the Milwaukee Brewers and losing five of their past eight.
But this comes under the heading of "you can't win them all." The Cubs are still north of .700. Their run differential is the stuff of dreams. Chicago's starting pitching is exceptional. Its offense is talented, versatile and, more than anything, deep, deep, deep.
So when manager Joe Maddon was asked Thursday what, if anything, he still needed to find out about his club, his response came down to getting a return to form from three relievers in the middle of the bullpen. That's a remarkably thin list of questions at this early juncture in the season, but it is not an unreasonable view of the Cubs.
Maddon loves his club's intangibles, and there isn't any reason to doubt his sincerity. He doesn't have much to find out in this area, either.
"Honestly, when you ask that question, I think about work ethic, preparation, guys who are able to play with a little bit of a bump or a bruise, guys in the bullpen who can really bounce back. That's what I think about when you ask that question," Maddon said. "At this point, I'm feeling pretty good about what I know about our group."
As to the relievers, the questions they present are not impossibly difficult, and the prevailing sentiment about their direction is optimistic.
"Normally, what you talk about in the first month of the season is trying to figure out your bullpen," Maddon said. "Right now, I'm seeing [Trevor] Cahill come on, I'm seeing [Clayton] Richard get velocity back, [Adam] Warren is really good, we knew that coming into it.
"We talked a lot about Cahill, [Travis] Wood, Richard at the end of last season were really very productive for us. Spring Training and up until recently, they were good, but not as good as they had been last season. Lately, we've been seeing signs of them being as good."
Wood had a particularly impressive outing Wednesday night against Milwaukee. Faced with a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the 12th inning, he responded by getting three straight popups. For good measure, he walked with the bases loaded in the 13th to provide the Cubs with the winning run.
"Travis was at 92 [mph Wednesday night]. The night before that, Cahill had really good command of everything; 24 pitches to get eight outs," Maddon said. "Spectacular. [Wednesday] night, Clayton comes in, goes to a 3-1 count, throws a strike, gets a groundout.
"That's the part that could really help us get over the top is getting those three guys back into form."
Maddon is relentlessly positive, but with his team at 28-11, there is plenty of evidence on the side of his optimism. He found further encouragement in his club's conduct during the 13th inning of Wednesday night's five-hour marathon. Chicago used 21 players in this game, but in the final innings, the railing of the visitors' dugout at Miller Park was lined with Cubs who were no longer participating in the game, but who were still emotionally in it.
"Thirteenth inning, they're all standing there leaning on the rail like birds on a wire," Maddon said. "That's was outstanding.
"Guys who were taken out of the game came back to watch. You'll see a lot of guys get taken out of the game go sit on the couch. Our guys were there for everybody else."
Apart from the relatively small issues in relief, a pleasant sort of certainty is the order of the day for the Cubs. This may start with Maddon, but it is widely shared.
As the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta puts it: "Home or road, regardless of the environment, we're a tough team to beat. We're going to fight until the last out is made. I like our chances to win every time we take the field."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.