Revamped bullpen starting to pay dividends

CINCINNATI -- Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria isn't declaring any new roles for his relievers, but there's little doubt things are changing in the bullpen. They extended a streak of scoreless innings to 14 in helping the Cubs to a 9-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night.

Four relievers shut the door on the Reds over 3 1/3 innings as newcomer Neil Ramirez had the toughest task: pitch the eighth inning through the heart of the Reds order with the score 5-4. It was Ramirez's second career appearance.

"[Pitching coach] Chris Bosio is real comfortable with him," Renteria said after the game. "His demeanor is calm. He has good stuff."

He has more than good stuff. In two career appearances, including his major league debut last Friday, he has mowed down the middle of the Milwaukee Brewers lineup as well as the Reds, and he has done it with a 96 mph fastball and a nasty 87 mph slider. He used the latter to strike out Jay Bruce and the former to get Todd Frazier on Wednesday. That's after fanning Ryan Braun on Friday for his first career strikeout.

"I was ready for it," Ramirez said of the pressure situation. "Kind of similar to that first time out [on Friday]. You try not to put too much pressure on yourself, but you know you need to go out there and get your job done so that's what I was focusing on."

Ramirez came over last season with Justin Grimm in the trade that sent Matt Garza to Texas. He has emerged as a valuable commodity. Hector Rondon pitched the ninth inning again, emphasizing the upside-down nature of the bullpen only one month into the season. Jose Veras is out. Pedro Strop has had some control problems, while left-hander James Russell has had his issues as well. Wesley Wright, Ramirez, Grimm and Rondon have taken over some key roles -- or at least it looks that way.

"I don't want to define them as roles, yet I just want to define them as guys being used in certain situations to kind of help us finish a ballgame," Renteria said.

That's another way of saying there are new roles for his relievers, but the labels don't matter anyway. What matters is the youth and live arms the Cubs possess, both at the major and minor league level. It took a few weeks, but now we're seeing what that talent looks like. Maligned for a year and nearly a month, the bullpen might finally become a strength.