CHICAGO -- Despite an 11-17 record, the Chicago Cubs clearly are feeling good about things.
Jake Arrieta looked strong in his first start of the season after missing the first month because of shoulder soreness. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo continue to produce at an impressive rate with the bats. And after Welington Castillo hit three doubles Friday, another young piece of the puzzle came through in Saturday's 3-0 victory over the Cardinals, as Junior Lake had three hits, including a huge two-run home run to open the scoring.
Along with the offense starting to finally come through, the bullpen appears to have figured things out as pitchers are beginning to find their roles. Hector Rondon closed out his second straight game for the team, earning his third save of the season.
Manager Rick Renteria was pleased with Rondon -- although he wouldn't go as far as naming him closer, saying the situation was "organic" -- and the team as a whole.
"I think we're swinging the bat with some production," Renteria said. "I think we're playing pretty good defense and, obviously, the starting pitching has done a really nice job keeping us in the ballgame. It doesn't hurt us that to this point the bullpen has stabilized a little bit. They've gone out and done a nice job when we've asked them to do what we need them to do. So we've been able to close out some games."
It looked as if Rondon was headed for a rough ninth inning after the first two batters reached base. But he induced a double-play comebacker from Jon Jay and got Mark Ellis to strike out swinging to end the game. Renteria appreciated that Rondon didn't panic and just focused on the task at hand, which was getting Jay out.
And while his manager hesitates to name him the closer, Rizzo clearly believes he has the mentality to handle the job.
"When Rondon's out there, I call him angry, because he looks angry on the mound," Rizzo said. "That comebacker is nice, it's textbook. And to get the final out and shutout is really nice for us."
Rizzo gave Rondon a little more of a cushion when he connected for his sixth home run of the season in the eighth, to extend the Cubs lead by a run. Rizzo also had a walk, bringing his season slash line to an impressive .296/.421/.520.
However, it was Lake who was the star of the day for the Cubs. Lake came in with a .250 on-base percentage and striking out in a remarkable 42.5 percent of his plate appearances. Michael Wacha made the mistake of giving Lake some fastballs in the zone and Lake didn't allow them to get by him. He sent one off the wall for a double and rocketed another into the left-center-field bleachers to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead in the sixth.
When asked if he expected a fastball, Lake didn't was quick to respond: "Yeah. Every at-bat."
Maybe a bit overlooked was Arrieta's impressive performance in his return from the disabled list. Arrieta tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings, giving up only four hits, striking out seven and walking only two.
Arrieta tossed 82 pitches, and Renteria said the Cubs were very conscious of his workload and weren't going to extend him in his first stat of the season.
Arrieta said the command of his sinker down in the zone and establishing his curveball early were the keys to his success. If his first start is a sign of things to come, his return makes the Cubs' top four pitchers in the rotation quite formidable. Add that to a bullpen that's starting to come together, and a young offense that Arrieta says he believes has just started to figure things out -- and you can understand why the players remain upbeat despite a rough start to the season.
"I think that our guys are really starting to develop individual routines, which plays a big part in being able to go out there every day and be successful," Arrieta said. "As a young guy, you kind of bounce back in between routines and you're not really sure of what to incorporate, what maybe to get rid of and what you can do more. But that's a process, a lot of the guys here are starting to get that. If you can have something in stone -- there's some flexibility there -- but something you're comfortable with and prepares you every day, you give yourself a good opportunity to be successful. I think that's what's showing now."
With a season-high three-game winning streak and having guaranteed themselves their first series victory of the season by taking the first two against the arch-rival Cardinals, the Cubs' clubhouse is as positive as it has been in a while. Rizzo said the team knows they're good, "it's just about getting wins."
He then took some ribbing from teammate Jason Hammel, whom Rizzo congratulated earlier in the season on his first NL victory, despite the fact that Hammel had 27 wins with the Rockies earlier in his career and had won a game with the Cubs just the week before.
"Attaboy, Rizzo. Congrats on your first home run," Hammel shouted from across the clubhouse, eliciting laughs from many.
And while the team is riding high, their manager remains even-keeled. He'll take the wins, but he knows there's work to do. Though it feels good to take a series from a perennial powerhouse like the Cardinals, and beat two of the better pitchers in the game in Wacha and Adam Wainwright, there's still a long way to go.
"It's two games," Renteria said. "There's a long season ahead of us. I'll measure where we're at at the end of the season. Is it good to put these two games behind us? Sure. But, again, it's a long season. We've got to maintain our approach, keep playing the game of baseball. There's going to be peaks and valleys, but right now it's a good place."