CHICAGO -- Before Tuesday night's 5-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein called September "bullpen games" with "all hands on deck" as the playoff race comes down to its final month.
Those words were predictably put to use on a night where the wind was blowing out and Dan Haren was starting for the Cubs. Haren did his job, lasting five innings while giving up just two runs, and eventually the Cubs took the lead as Kyle Schwarber went deep in the seventh. Then came a tight finish with the Cubs' top two relievers on the mound: setup man Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon.
The Reds went down in order in both the eighth and ninth innings, barely touching either reliever as they combined to strike out 3 of 6 hitters.
"The two guys hadn't pitched in a while," manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "That's probably the best stuff you've seen out of them all year."
Ah, yes. Jake Arrieta's no-hitter is the gift that keeps on giving. His nine-inning performance on Sunday coupled with the Reds' blowout win on Monday kept Strop and Rondon on the bench until they were needed. If there was ever a case for the "if you're going to lose, get blown out" theory, it's when bullpen arms can be rested.
And if September (and October) is a bullpen month, as the Kansas City Royals showed last year, then Strop and Rondon are going to be two of the busiest and most important pieces to the Cubs' puzzle. On Tuesday, Schwarber was the hero but the two relievers weren't far behind. It'll be that way for the next 31 games -- and perhaps beyond.
"I feel like we're playing playoff games in September," Strop said. "Just excited."
"Excited" would be a good way to describe Strop doing everyday things, let alone pitching in a pennant race. Meanwhile, Rondon is quieter and less expressive on the mound. It's not as if Rondon ever has to explain his antics as Strop had to do once again after striking out Brandon Phillips to end the eighth inning. He screamed loudly and hopped off the mound while directing his attention towards the Reds second baseman.
"He was getting on his knees, swinging hard, trying to hit the ball out of the park," Strop explained, smiling. "So I was like 'uh oh, I'm going to throw as hard as I can too.'
"After the strikeout I got a little excited because of the situation of the game. Nothing personal. [He's] a great player."
Rondon tends to get excited on the mound but there isn't a player around who doesn't enjoy his personality. Even opponents dig him. As Strop screamed in Phillips' direction, all the batter could do was smile and give him a thumbs up.
"I'm never going to be doing something stupid in a 10-0 game," Strop said. "The situation is going to dictate what comes out."
The upcoming moments in Wrigley Field are bound to be tense this month so Strop will have plenty of chances to express himself. He and Rondon are also bound to be in the middle of a lot of that action. Even the mild-mannered closer got caught up in the moment as he finished the game touching 100 mph on his second pitch to Eugenio Suarez.
"First time ever," Rondon said, also smiling. "I feel really good. I enjoyed it. I saw the radar."
It might not be the last time. The intensity of a playoff race has returned.