Slight wobble can't derail Cubs' bullpen

CHICAGO – After 11 innings from their relievers against the team with the best record in baseball, everybody in the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen was walking tall Sunday, even the guy who nearly let it all get away.

Kevin Gregg might have blown the save with one out to go in the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the relief corps was still able to gang tackle a team that has played better than anybody this season.

“It wasn’t what the doctor ordered, another two-out, two-strike homer on bullpen day, but they did a great job,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “To give up two runs in seven innings is a great job.”

Perhaps Sveum wasn’t considering Villanueva a member of the bullpen. The long man got the call to start Sunday because of a rotation void and kept the Pirates in check for a 4-3 victory that not only gave the Cubs the series victory, but consecutive series victories at home.

Villanueva gave up just one run on three hits over four innings to start, throwing 69 pitches in the process, his most since throwing 80 on May 14. The rotation opening, left when Scott Feldman was traded to the Baltimore Orioles, figures to be Villanueva’s moving forward.

“It just feels good to have some music on after a game,” Villanueva said of the clubhouse practice of indulging in entertainment only after victories. “Winning this series against these guys who are in first place, I think it definitely cures a lot of aches and pains and I think everybody is healthy.”

Following Villanueva came a parade of six Cubs relievers, starting with Hector Rondon, who gave up a run of his own in 1 2/3 innings. Pedro Strop, James Russell and Blake Parker all had scoreless outings as the Cubs took a 3-2 lead to the bottom of the ninth inning.

That’s where Gregg stumbled, though, with his second blown save in a span of eight days after successfully converting his first 12 chances. The Pirates' Starling Marte crushed a two-out, 3-2 offering into the seats just to the left side of dead center field.

“We were one strike away there,” Gregg said. “I made some good pitches to him and made him conscious of a ball in. I felt like I made a good pitch away from him and he did a good job of going to get it.”

Matt Guerrier then came on to pitch the final two innings a day after he had already pitched two. Guerrier was on the emergency-use-only list and a tie game after nine innings qualified as an emergency.

The right-hander now has consecutive two-inning scoreless outings after taking the loss at Oakland last week in his Cubs debut.

“It’s always nice to beat the team on top,” said Guerrier, who plans on doing extra work in the coming days to help his arm bounce back. “They have been playing some good baseball, and for us to take two out of three here, we’ll see what happens.”

Guerrier, at least, will get to be a spectator when the Cubs travel across town Monday for a makeup game against the White Sox. Sveum said his new right-hander will get at least a day to rest to recuperate.

It might have been a victory where a Scott Hairston home run gave the Cubs a late lead and a sacrifice fly from Dioner Navarro won it in the 11th, but it was really a day to celebrate a bullpen that hasn’t had the best of seasons. Even Gregg could get behind that concept.

“The bullpen, on a whole, was outstanding today,” Gregg said. “It kept us in the ballgame the entire time and we ended up winning.”