Cubs bullpen keeps surprising

CHICAGO -- At the beginning of the season, the Chicago Cubs' bullpen was a mess causing upheaval throughout the season.

Yes, the occasional blown game still occurs but just as the season is winding down, the relief corps might be coming together.

At least the names have been the same since the trade deadline, and those same names might make the offseason task look a little easier. It was only a few months ago it looked the Cubs would need to find a whole new bullpen.

“They’re all going to be in the mix,” manager Dale Sveum said after he used five relievers to secure a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday.

Think about it. It wasn’t that long ago it looked like the front office would have to bring in a whole new group of pitchers. After all, only two relievers, Hector Rondon and James Russell, remain from Opening Day. Closing games has been a problem.

“We’ve had a little trouble with that sometimes, but you get the matchups and do some things, and, obviously, you get to your setup guy and closer and see what happens,” Sveum said.

On Saturday, it worked to perfection. And Sveum’s moves felt like the Cubs were in a pennant race. After Carlos Villanueva pitched 1⅓ innings in relief of Chris Rusin, Sveum went to three relievers to get three different batters. Then, Pedro Strop pitched the eighth while Kevin Gregg worked the ninth for his 28th save.

“To put five guys out there and finish off the game, that’s what we’re hoping to do every time,” Gregg said. “What we got out there is working pretty well. I like the pieces that we have. They fit together good."

At least on Saturday they did. Russell came in to face lefty Chase Utley. He popped out. Righty Blake Parker got his man -- Carlos Ruiz -- before Strop and Gregg finished things off. Maybe this is the crux of the bullpen for 2014.

“You think about it, yeah,” Parker said of next season. “You still try to get out there and show you can pitch, and, hopefully, it can be good for next year or down the road.”

Parker has come back from an injury to post a 2.13 ERA. Russell has struggled some but has probably been overused as the only lefty reliever, while Gregg has been a godsend since Carlos Marmol and Kyuji Fujikawa were ineffective and injured, respectively.

Then there is Strop. Acquired from the Baltimore Orioles for Scott Feldman, he might have the brightest future.

“I saw it in Baltimore, so I knew what we were in for,” Gregg said of his teammate. “Electric stuff. That’s a guy that’s real comfortable with what he’s doing.”

His perfect eighth inning lowered his ERA to 2.22. The Cubs' bullpen was so good on Saturday, Gregg lamented the fact he thought he gave up the only hit over the final five innings. Villanueva gave up one, too, so neither was “perfect.” It’s a far cry from April and May when blown leads were the norm. Maybe the Cubs' front office will indeed have less work to do on its bullpen than first thought.

No one could see that coming.