CHICAGO -- Are the Chicago Cubs really using a closer by committee or is it more like bullpen by committee?
That last phrase sounds strange -- every bullpen is by committee -- but the interchangeable roles before the ninth inning give it that "committee" feel. A lot of people might believe their closer is also interchangeable but the reality is only Hector Rondon and Jason Motte have been labeled as such -- though the Cubs have a league high seven different players with saves.
"I've done it before," manager Joe Maddon said of using several closers. "I'm very comfortable with it."
But that's not really what he's done this season. Rondon had the job then gave it to Motte for a while before earning it back again. The reason five other relievers have saves is more a function of all the close games the Cubs have played this season. They've ranked near the top of the league in one run affairs having played 42 of them to date.
More important is their 25 one-run victories. It's meant they've needed their closer more than a lot of other teams. But Rondon (and Motte for a while) can't pitch every day hence others getting save chances as James Russell did in Tuesday's 6-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
"I told Rondon to show up in sneakers," Maddon said after the win.
He didn't want to throw Rondon after heavy use in the weekend sweep of the San Francisco Giants where the righty even earned a rare two-inning save.
"I would never run away from that one guy that can slam it," Maddon said.
Rondon has come pretty close to slamming it this year. He's 19-for-22 in save opportunities, including 10 for his last 10, with a 1.74 ERA. What more do you want out of your closer? It's entirely possible his midseason break from the ninth inning pressure helped him so this isn't a criticism of Maddon pulling him from that role but just an observation they really haven't had a closer by committee. The bottom line is when Rondon and Motte have been rested they've been used as the closer in almost every opportunity.
The middle innings are a different story.
"You have to be ready," righty Justin Grimm said. "He goes with matchups. You have to be ready to roll with it."
Grimm is a great example of a Cubs pitcher who has to be ready at any moment -- and it was something he had to get used to. Last week alone he came into the game in the fifth inning to earn a victory then pitched the ninth inning on Saturday to earn the save -- but only because Rondon wasn't available.
"If you can pull it off it can really help," Cubs President Theo Epstein said to reporters of the interchangeable roles.
The beauty of Maddon's strategy is two-fold. If the "normal" eighth inning guy is struggling, for example, he can rotate him to a less pressure-filled situation in favor of someone else who's had some experience there. The other thing Maddon can do is play to a pitcher's strength more often. If he needs a ground ball in the sixth inning he might go to Pedro Strop or if it's a strikeout that's needed Grimm might be better suited. And those middle guys get tired as well so, again, a rotation in that part of the ballgame makes perfect sense.
Closer by committee works less often because the ninth inning does take a different mentality.
"We tried it with no closer and got off to a bad start and it didn't work," Epstein said of his 2003 Boston team.
Maddon really hasn't tried it -- though he's needed several good arms back there because the Cubs have played tight games all season. That probably won't end anytime soon.