The biggest weak spot at the beginning of the season last year for the Chicago Cubs was their bullpen. For the most part, the Cubs were going with all inexperienced pitchers in the late-innings. The Cubs were going to live or die with the combination of three rookies in the bullpen to start the season, and a first time closer. While Carlos Marmol was able to transition from a very good set-up man into an exceptional closer, the combination of Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, and James Russell were not ready to make the complete transition into the majors. Which in the end, may have cost the Cubs about 15 to 20 games early on in the season.
Like last season, the key to the Cubs getting off to hot start this season is their bullpen. However unlike last season, the Cubs’ bullpen has the potential to be one of the best in the major leagues. Instead of costing the Cubs 20 games this season, their bullpen may be the reason why the Cubs win so many games in the early going of the 2011 season. The excellence of the Cubs’ bullpen has been on display already for the first two games of the season.
First, lets go back to opening day for a minute. The Cubs lost the game 6-3, in which all 6 runs were surrendered by starting pitcher Ryan Dempster. This may not exactly get mentioned in the newspaper when you are doing your morning reading, but after Dempster left the game the Pirates did not score another run for the rest of the game. That alone could be a very good sign for the Cubs this season. As a reliever when you come into a game and your team is losing, your only goal is to keep the game close. By not allowing another run to the Pirates on opening day, the Bullpen gave the Cubs’ offense time to try and climb back into the ball game. while that didn’t happen in this particular instance, it is something to watch for as we progress into the season.
Which brings me to yesterday’s game against the Pirates. Once again, the starting pitcher–in this case, Carlos Zambrano–was on the hook for the loss as he had given up 3 runs in 6 innings of work. But the back bone of the Cubs bullpen–Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol–shut the Pirates down as they had combined seven strikeouts in the final three innings of the game. Allowing the Cubs’ offense to score five runs in the eighth inning to lead the Cubs to their first victory of the season.
Now, no one should expect that the Cubs bullpen will continue to shutout opponents for the rest of the season, as that is unheard of in major league baseball. But, this is difference between the 2011 Cubs and the 2010 Cubs. In 2010 there would have been a good chance that the Cubs would have lost a game like yesterday’s, compared to the Cubs’ bullpen paving the way to victory in 2011. If the bullpen remains on their hot start that they are on after two games of the season, the Cubs may get off to hot start as well.