Over the last week of play the Chicago Cubs continue to be a fascinating team to watch night in and night out. The last week has seen Jon Lester regain his form, Anthony Rizzo continue to shine, and the rookies still dazzling. Yet, at the same time the Cubs have also seen their bullpen fall into a troublesome slump this past week. While Joe Maddon certainly has his fire lit on the heels of his second ejection of the season, the young Cubs are trying to find their way through their first real challenging part of the 2015 season as they wrap up a four-game series with the rival St. Louis Cardinals.
Up until this recent slide, the Cubs had only lost back-to-back games once. During the month of April Chicago really was able to have a balance in all three phases of the game and enable the predominately young roster to get off to a nice start to the season. However, lately that balance has cooled off a bit, and mainly in the bullpen. During the first 11 days of the season, the bullpen led the NL with a 1.38 ERA, and the team went 5-3. Then in the next seven games it was a 5.48 ERA with a 3-4 record. Next came a four-game scoreless run for the pen and a 4-0 record. Finally prior to Wednesday night’s win, the last five games has seen a spike in ERA at 7.31 with a 1-4 mark. For as much of the headlines that the offense dominates, the bullpen is and will always be the determining factor if the Cubs do plan on being contenders this year.
After getting back in the win column, the Cubs have now scored 22 runs in their last four games. Generally, most teams would take that and expect at least a split in terms of wins and losses. Unfortunately though, in that same stretch Chicago has allowed 27 runs. Against the Cardinals, the pitching staff has lost multiple comfortable leads resulting in some stinging defeats and a plethora of bullpen roster changes. Even across the landscape of the league, in this day and age of bullpen specialists and a decrease in late-inning runs scored, premiums are being put on bullpens all around. At the moment, the numbers are in favor of the premium bullpens as six of the teams with the top seven records in baseball – including five division leaders – had the top six-ranked bullpens in the majors through Tuesday: the Royals (1.00 ERA), Cardinals (1.52), Yankees (1.86), Dodgers (1.90), Astros (2.21) and Mets (2.77).
The positive though this week has been the reemergence of ace pitcher Jon Lester. In two May starts, Lester has regained form with 14 innings pitched allowing just one earned run with 10 strikeouts. The left-hander has been much sharper in May likely due to the fact that he may just be getting into form. During the spring, Lester only threw eight innings, and his handful of April starts showed the command struggles. Now with the pressure of his big contract settled and the innings building, Lester is turning that corner. Wednesday night, the Cubs needed every bit of an ace on the bump to stop a losing streak, and Lester delivered.
This week has also seen Addison Russell and not Kris Bryant leave the yard twice and Rizzo having one of the best all-around starts to a season in team history. By no means is it panic time in Chicago, but with the recent struggles of the bullpen it is just another reminder that this Cubs team just may very well ride these types of waves all season long. It is why the Cubs will continue to be one of the must-see teams to watch all season long.