Too often last year, the Cubs relievers were called upon to fill in for innings because of shortened outings by the starters. This year, the relievers are a big reason the Cubs are the Central Division champions and heading into the postseason for the first time since 2003.
"They're hitting on all cylinders going in," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "We have a lot of guys throwing well right now."
The reason? The pitchers know their roles. Just look at closer Ryan Dempster's numbers. When the right-hander is pitching in a save situation -- he was 28-for-31 -- he has a 3.48 ERA, and when it's a non-save situation, it's close to 5.00 ERA.
It's just a matter of doing their jobs.
"We all had roles. We all knew our roles," Eyre said, explaining the Cubs' 'pen. "Take a line from 'The Rock' in wrestling -- Know your role.' We knew our roles."
Want to do a little role-playing?
"[Kerry Wood] and I, and [Michael Wuertz], pitch if we're up by a couple runs, or down by a couple runs," Eyre said. "If we need a strikeout, you run in big Carlos [Marmol] -- well, little Carlos. He's 'Big Carlos' in the bullpen. Then Bobby [Howry] and Demp did the eighth and ninth.
"It didn't matter if someone was warming up in the seventh, or three lefties were coming up -- we all know our roles," Eyre said. "In all honesty, that's the easiest way to do it. Managers know that -- guys get comfortable. If a guy knows he's the first guy off the bench to pinch run, he's loose. He knows. The eighth inning, Bobby knows he's in. The seventh inning, and it's a one- or two-run game, and there are lefties coming up, I might be in the game. You know your role."
Eyre had to show he was deserving of a spot in Cubs manager Lou Piniella's bullpen. The lefty struggled at the start of the season, and had a dismal first half, going 0-1 with a 6.60 ERA in 27 games. Piniella kept calling him "Steve Ire" -- it was an honest glitch -- and Eyre had a glove made up with that name stitched on the side.
In the second half, Eyre was 2-0 with a 0.81 ERA in 28 games. He credits his teammates with helping him by reminding him they needed him.
Howry is the workhorse, and leads the relievers in appearances. He didn't get as much work in the first half.
"I think there were times earlier in the year when we'd never get any innings because the starters were going seven, eight innings every night," Howry said. "Then we went through a spell -- I think it was when we started getting on winning ways again -- and as soon as someone got in trouble, they'd call on the bullpen. That's about the time the bullpen came together and started pitching as a unit."
The pitcher who has made the biggest impact is Marmol, who wasn't even on the Opening Day roster. The right-hander was one of 16 rookies the Cubs used in 2006, but he was a starter then. It wasn't a good year, as he compiled a 5.99 ERA as a starter.
This year, Marmol leads the National League in inherited runners stranded, a statistic relievers covet. And, in case you didn't know, Big Carlos on the team is Carlos Zambrano. Marmol is the big man in the pen, possessing a nasty slider, which he likes to call his "baby."
"We needed a pitcher who could pitch a couple innings in the setup role who had some good power and good velocity, and he brought that and a great breaking ball to the mix," Piniella said. "After that, we were able to start piecing together the bullpen the way we wanted to. He's had a lot to do with the success we had in the bullpen."
Give the kids some credit, too. Young players called up to sub in the pen, including Kevin Hart, Sean Gallagher, Rocky Cherry, Billy Petrick and Clay Rapada, helped in the Cubs' run.
But the feel-good story of the season is Wood. Sidelined most of last season with shoulder problems, Wood has rehabbed -- again -- and been effective. This will be his third postseason with the Cubs, although he was a starter in 1998 and 2003.
"It's a different role, and I'm enjoying it," he said. "I feel more comfortable and have a better idea of what I'm going to do coming into games. It's been fun. I like my role."
"That's a big bonus [having Wood]," Rothschild said.
The Cubs relievers are close-knit. That helps when they hit an occasional bump in the road.
"The guys have been great -- and they're a key part of this team," Wood said. "Everybody talks about the competitive nature of guys. You feed off each other and it's happened down there. Guys have played off each other and it's a tight group of guys down there."
"We mesh and we compliment each other well," Eyre said. "Our offense seems to pull a lot of games out in the late innings, and I think that's a little confidence from us to them. They know if they score a couple runs, we can hold it. We'll see how it goes."