CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs hitters really mean no offense to their closer, Hector Rondon. They simply want to add on runs and win baseball games without a nail-biting ninth inning. In that vein, they play a game catcher David Ross brought to the team.
"When you're on the bench and you're up three runs, two runs, whatever, we have a game we call Screw the Closer," Ross explained, laughing and admitting 'screw' isn't the word the players actually use. "We want to score more so he doesn't get the save."
Of course, the game is in jest. The Cubs are perfectly fine with Rondon getting a save, but they like adding on to the huge run differential that has defined their season so far. How's the game going? Pretty good when you consider the Cubs rank second in baseball in runs scored from the seventh inning on. Rondon has been a yo-yo, warming up only to sit down again when the Cubs score too many runs late in the game.
"He gets up and down a lot," Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode laughed of Rondon's workday. "I'd say 4-5 times he's been ready in the eighth inning and then he's not needed."
Rondon is 6-for-6 in save opportunities after converting his latest one over the weekend against the Washington Nationals. For a 24-win team, you would think he’d have had a few more chances, but that's not the case. That's because the Cubs' run differential over their first 30 games is out of this world: plus-102. It hasn’t resulted in many tight games at the end.
"I think 4-5 times already I got up [then down], but it doesn't bother me," Rondon said Sunday. "[Anthony] Rizzo and [David] Ross, they laugh all the time."
They're not the only ones. Ross says the whole dugout gets into the game, led by Jon Lester at times.
"Lester will go, 'It's a little game we like to call Screw the Closer!'" Ross said. "And then we score and everyone goes 'YEAH!'"
Rondon laughs along with them because he knows the win is all that matters, though his agent might be concerned. The pitcher is arbitration-eligible after this season, and saves are a closer's meal ticket.
"It's early May -- there's a lot of season left," Rondon's representative, Scott Pucino, said. "There'll be a lot of ammunition. It's about your contribution to the team, not just the number of saves."
True, but saves don't hurt. If the Cubs win their division, Rondon is on pace to match the fewest saves (33) by a division-winning team (Boston, 2013) going back to 1990. For perspective, the fewest saves ever for a division winner is 17, achieved by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974. But that was a different era in baseball as the Pirates pitched 51 complete games. Rondon will get more than 17 saves, but how many more?
"Sometimes it's kind of funny what those guys are doing late in the game," Rondon said. "It's much more important we win the game.
"They come tell me they like to 'screw' me up."
Well, it is the name of the game, after all. The real challenge for manager Joe Maddon is finding work for his closer when there isn't work to be had. That's where Strode comes in. It's his job to make sure Rondon is ready no matter the situation.
"The one thing I try to get him to understand is -- whether it's one or two runs or four runs -- to pitch the same," Strode explained. "Mentally, you have to think, I'm going in to shut this game down."
That can be easier said than done, as we've seen many a closer struggle in non-save situations, and that can carry over to an outing when the score isn't so lopsided. That’s one reason Maddon doesn't like to bring in his closer in blowouts, but Strode and Rondon convinced the manager it was needed for the pitcher to remain sharp.
"Sometimes they get too relaxed with those conditions," Strode said. "It's tough to pitch in, but you have to be ready in all circumstances."
Rondon added: "When you come into the game, it's a little different mentally. In a close game the mental part is quite different."
So as he battles a lack of adrenaline when the game is out of hand, Rondon does his best to mimic a close contest. His sequences will be similar and his mindset the same. So far, so good. His 0.79 ERA and four hits allowed in 11 innings are a testament to how sharp he's stayed in the face of all his teammates conspiring against him.
"I love the game," Ross said. "We start screaming in the dugout. 'Screw the closer! C'mon!'"
Rondon gets it and believes his time will come.
"We hit well," he said.
Then a pause. And a smile.
"Especially late in the game, we hit really well."