Unlikely candidates solidifying Cubs' pen

PITTSBURGH -- The Chicago Cubs' mini-resurgence over the past six games can be directly related to the success of their bullpen, especially at the back end. It's not exactly something they keep track of but there can't be many teams in baseball -- if any -- using a player to be named later and a Rule 5 draft pick as their setup man and closer like the Cubs.

Neil Ramirez and Hector Rondon came upon the jobs out of some desperation by manager Rick Renteria after early-season failure by others. But now that they have them, Rondon and Ramirez are thriving as two of the biggest surprises of the season.

"Up until this point I'd be hard-pressed to see any other back end of the bullpen as good as we've been throwing," Renteria said Friday.

Only the Cincinnati Reds' combination of Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman have better numbers in the NL Central. If Ramirez and Rondon aren't the best, they're in the team photo.

"Those guys have been doing a great job," starter Travis Wood said recently.

Carlos Villanueva added: "Those guys know when they're going to be called into the game now. It's working."

How did they win their respective jobs? They don't give out many free passes. It's the first rule of a late-inning reliever, especially on the Cubs, who don't blow teams out very often. If they're going to win there's a good chance it's going to be a close game and walking the opposition is the kiss of death. It's the reason Ramirez and Rondon have become the A team for Renteria when he goes to the bullpen with a lead and players such as Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop have emerged as the B team. At the start of the season those roles were basically reversed.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ramirez and Rondon have five walks combined in the eighth and ninth innings this season over the course of 26 appearances. And in 25 innings combined they've struck out 34. Five walks, 34 strikeouts. Again, only Broxton and Chapman exceed that strikeout-to-walk ratio in the eighth and ninth innings within the division. But Chapman was one of the most heralded pitchers when he entered the league. Ramirez and Rondon didn't exactly get the same headlines.

The phrases "player to be named later" and "Rule 5 pick" don't exactly scream "top prospects," but that doesn't mean they can't be talented players.

Sometimes a player to be named is just a throw-in, but not so much in Ramirez's case. The Cubs wanted him when they traded Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers last July for four players including CJ Edwards, Mike Olt, Grimm and Ramirez. But Ramirez was injured and the Cubs wanted to make sure he was healthy before taking him. Ramirez pretty much knew all along he was going to Chicago once he recovered from a shoulder injury, and in late August he finally became a Cub.

Just less than a year later, Ramirez has become the most accomplished of the four players acquired in the trade. Third baseman Olt has nine home runs, but he's hitting .150. Edwards is recovering from shoulder soreness in Double-A and Ramirez vaulted past Grimm as the main setup man and sometimes closer.

Ramirez earned his first career save Thursday over the New York Mets. Overall he's 0-1 with a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings pitched and has struck out 23 while walking four. In fact, according to Stats Inc., Ramirez has the lowest ERA of any Cubs reliever in his first 16 appearances going back 100 years.

"The thing with Neil is he's a very emotional guy," Villanueva said recently. "Usually guys come up in the big leagues and they're a little timid, 'Oh, I'm facing Ryan Braun,' forget Ryan Braun. He knows he has the stuff to get anyone out."

Ramirez got Braun to whiff for his first career strikeout in late April and he hasn't looked back. A converted reliever at Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio's suggestion, there's a good chance Ramirez tries his hand at starting again next year. His stuff, which includes a fastball, curveball, slider and yet to be seen change-up, is so good the Cubs would be missing an opportunity if they didn't try it in 2015.

Rondon's rise to closer is just as unlikely. The Rule 5 draft is almost an afterthought at the baseball winter meetings. Held on the last day as teams are scurrying out of town, there have been some notable pickups. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente is the most famous, but there have been plenty of serviceable players languishing in the minors not protected by their team's 40-man roster.

Rondon was one for the Cleveland Indians when the Cubs rescued him in December 2012. General manager Jed Hoyer said at the time "we really spent a lot of time on this guy," when they chose him. They saw something in him as he was recovering from elbow issues.

Rondon came on strong toward the end of last season before Bosio declared him his "project" this spring. He'll have his hiccups -- he had a small one Friday in a blown save -- but Rondon has shown the ability and mental makeup to handle the job so far. He's 7-of-9 in save opportunities with a 2.45 ERA. The Marlins had three bloop hits en route to his missed chance Friday and considering the Cubs' recent history on the back end those numbers are more than worthy of praise.

Maybe the bullpen roller coaster has finally quieted down after several seasons of upheaval. For the moment, anyway, Rondon and Ramirez have calmed things down at the end of games, as unlikely as that scenario seemed a couple of months ago.

"No question, they're getting the job done," Renteria said.