MILWAUKEE -- If the Chicago Cubs are in need of help, they sure didn’t show it in their series win over the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend. In their last game before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, their back-up catcher hit a game-winning home run and their secondary relief arms were lights out, ending a thrilling three-game road slate with a 4-2 win.
The backstop and bullpen were considered the team’s two areas of need as they head into the final two months of the regular season with a now-solid hold on first place in the National League Central.
“It’s outstanding to watch this entire group come together,” manager Joe Maddon said of the Cubs’ 13-3 record since the All-Star break.
That group includes little-known catcher and first baseman Victor Caratini. All he did was play flawless defense on Sunday while filling in for Gold and Platinum Glove winner Anthony Rizzo, who was nursing a sore back. Caratini also broke a 2-2 tie with his first career home run in the seventh inning -- a blast to center field off Milwaukee starter Zach Davies. It very well could have been Caratini’s last at-bat before being sent to the minors -- that is, if the Cubs acquire a veteran catcher by the deadline, as expected.
“I’m going to just keep going about my business, just trying to do whatever I can to stay here,” Caratini said through translator Henry Blanco after the game. “That’s out of my control.”
Perhaps more interesting is what the Cubs will do in the bullpen, where Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon sent down six straight batters in the seventh and eighth innings on Sunday. They’re considered the Cubs’ secondary arms after Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop, but those two pitched on Saturday, leaving Grimm and Rondon to hold down the Brewers before Wade Davis took over in the ninth.
“My mechanics are really good right now,” Rondon said. “I feel like we have a really good bullpen. If they bring in someone else, we take it. For us, like players, we don’t think we need someone else.”
That has been the sentiment throughout the second half so far. Rizzo repeated as much after the game on Sunday;
Jason Heyward has stated the same, as well. But that’s expected out of players. They’ll always go to the bat for their own guys. But Rondon’s season, alone, gives good reason to add another arm.
Talk about a roller coaster. Rondon had a 0.96 ERA in April; 7.20 in May; 4.76 in June; and a 3.60 mark in July. He hasn’t given up a run over his past four outings since being asked to enter with the bases loaded and no outs in a bad loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on July 21. Rondon is hitting the upper-90s mph on the radar gun and showing the nastiness that made him an effective closer at one time.
“It’s not how you start,” Rondon said. “It’s how you finish.”
Rondon felt left out of last year’s playoff push due to a slow return from an injury, so he wants in this time around. The success of Rondon and his bullpen mates, along with Caratini, probably changes nothing for Chicago’s front office heading into Monday’s deadline -- but it should give Maddon some confidence to use any of them, at least at the moment.
But that’s the key thing: Just because the Cubs are good now doesn’t mean they will be in a month or two. See Rondon’s stats as evidence. Maddon would love to add a reliever who can get righties and lefties out, from the top of the order all the way to the bottom. In other words, another closer. New York Mets righty Addison Reed probably isn’t coming, according to a source, but the Cubs are in talks for one of many others.
“Any time you can get a really good, neutral relief pitcher, it helps a lot,” Maddon said before the game. “Then you don’t have to warm guys up and not use them.
“When you constantly have matchup dudes, the threat there is you’ll wear them out even by not pitching them in the actual game.”
Right now, Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara come to mind as “matchup” dudes, though it wasn’t long ago that Strop and Rondon were in that category. Right now, Maddon has faith in them all, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs shouldn’t fortify.
“How about Victor today?” Maddon said. “Big, big home run to center field. Everyone is contributing.”
And that, above all else, is why the Cubs are back in first place. They aren’t being carried by one or two starters or just a couple of hitters. Caratini might find himself in the minors come Monday or Tuesday, but he can know he contributed to a winning cause. Same with Rondon, no matter if or who the Cubs add to the pen. But they’re likely to make a move one way or another.
“There’s nothing yet,” Maddon said before the game. “No white smoke. By the time we get back [Sunday night], there might be more to talk about.”