It's no joke: Cubs reliever Hector Rondon is 'taking off'

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs reliever Hector Rondon simply couldn’t locate his pitches during spring training or on the bigger stage of the World Baseball Classic, so he was far from ready when the regular season began.

But about a month later, he’s starting to come around. Rondon produced his fourth straight scoreless outing in Tuesday's 9-7 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, which snapped the Cubs' four-game losing streak.

Can you believe the previously beleaguered reliever has a 1.42 ERA in the early going of 2017?

"As Ronnie gets his confidence, and his slider is back where it’s supposed to be, he is going to take off," manager Joe Maddon said after the win.

The thought of Rondon "taking off" seemed ridiculous at the end of spring training, with his 14.73 ERA and his rough performance in the WBC for Team Venezuela. He also wasn’t passing the eye test. Fastballs were being left belt high, and there was no bite to his breaking pitch. When Rondon’s slider isn’t sliding, he’s in big trouble.

“Ever since he changed his delivery, he’s been on line a lot better,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “He’s executing pitches. The breaking ball looks sharper now.”

What tweak did the Cubs make on Rondon?

“[In] the stretch ... pull my hands down, that helps me a lot to get my angle to home plate,” he said. “I still don’t feel right about my mechanics.”

But he’s getting there. Rondon entered the game in the eighth inning protecting a one-run lead with a 15 mph wind blowing out. The Brewers had been bashing the ball all over Wrigley for two days, and Rondon had been taken deep by Domingo Santana just a few days ago in Milwaukee.

Santana led off the eighth with a 13-pitch at-bat that ended in a strikeout on a good slider. We could look back at that moment as the return of the righty who was so dominant for much of the past two seasons before being replaced as closer and getting hurt.

“He’s more on time with his slider,” Maddon said. “He’s getting more on top out front. It’s down. It’s where it’s supposed to be.”

Rondon has never indicated a loss of confidence, nor has he hid from his struggles. The same can be true of an up-and-down bullpen so far this season. Only closer Wade Davis has been consistent so far, so this might be a step in the right direction for the group. That wind had no effect on Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards Jr., Rondon or Davis.

“A couple games we struggled,” Rondon said. “We’re getting more comfortable to come in late in the game.”

What a difference a day or two makes, as even Maddon worried about the confidence of his relievers earlier in the week. Before Tuesday’s game, general manager Jed Hoyer expressed no concern about his offense -- he was proven right later in the night -- but what was left unmentioned was the bullpen. It has had a slow start, but a dominant night as the wind howled toward the lake beyond the bleachers can make a world of difference.

Speaking of differences, Rondon thinks he has found one as well: It’s called the regular season.

“Spring training is different,” he said. “You pitch different. Everything works different. The hitter, they’re thinking how you’re going to pitch them. In spring, they’re just swinging.”