Middle relievers could be crucial for Chicago Cubs in Game 2


On Friday night, the Chicago Cubs dropped the first game of a five game series against the St. Louis Cardinals 4-0. What do the Cubs need to do in Game 2 to reverse their fortunes and avoid going down 2-0 in the series?

After dropping Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday night, the Chicago Cubs will contest Game 2 against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at 4:37 Central time on TBS in an almost must-win situation. Without an ace to send out to the mound, the success of the Cubs in this game could come down to how well their bullpen performs, specifically the middle relievers.

On Thursday, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon announced that 25-year-old Kyle Hendricks will be the starter for Game 2 on Saturday night.

"(Kyle) has been very sharp. The fact he could put the ball on the ground matters a lot, too, and keeping the ball out of the air.–-Quote obtained by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Gonzales"

This season in 32 starts, Hendricks had an 8-7 record to go along with a 3.95 ERA and 1.161 WHIP. According to baseball reference, Hendricks has done well keeping the ball on the ground, accumulating a ground ball/fly ball ratio of 1.10 which is well above the league average of 0.85.

Despite solid regular season statistics, Hendricks’ inability to consistently pitch deep into games makes the performance of the Chicago Cubs middle relievers crucial for a win in a critical Game 2 matchup.

Oct 3, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks (28) reacts after losing his bid for a perfect game in the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

According to baseball reference game logs, Kyle Hendricks has pitched only one complete game this season. In 32 starts, he averaged 5.625 innings pitched per game. With Game 2 essentially becoming a must-win situation to avoid going down 0-2 in this series, Joe Maddon will likely keep Hendricks on a short leash. At the first sign of real trouble, Hendricks could get pulled. It is hard to predict when this would likely happen; however, the Chicago Cubs have a plan ready if Hendricks faces a premature exist.

If Hendricks survives between five and six innings tomorrow in accordance with his season average, the Cubs bullpen is looking at between three and four innings of relief work. In this scenario, the pitchers who pitch in the middle innings of the game, before the eighth and ninth inning when the Cubs usually put in setup man Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon, must continue to keep the Cubs in the game.

The Cubs are fortunate to have two former starters in their bullpen. If the Cubs need multiple quality innings in the middle of the game, they have two guys who can handle a heavy workload.

Left-handed pitcher Travis Wood started 133 games in his six-year Major League career. In 2013 with the Chicago Cubs, he had a 3.11 ERA as a starter and earned his first and only All-Star appearance of his career. After struggling in nine starts in the Cubs starting rotation this season, Wood has established himself as the inning-eating middleman, accumulating an ERA of 2.95 in 45 appearances as a reliever.

Another middleman option for the Cubs is 32-year-old left-handed pitcher Clayton Richard who signed with the Cubs in July. The intention was for Richard to fill out the back end of the Chicago Cubs rotation. In three starts, he had a 3.00 ERA. Ultimately, the Cubs opted to bring in Dan Haren prior to the trade deadline to take the role of the fifth starter in the rotation. As a reliever, Richard has been mediocre. In 20 starts, he has a 4.44 ERA.

Both Wood and Richard give the Cubs options if Joe Maddon elects to pull Hendricks early. Both players can manage starters’ workloads, and could eat up several innings in the middle of the game to save the rest of the bullpen. If Hendricks goes out early, the Cubs will likely use Wood or Richard in the middleman role then use the rest of their pitchers based on situational circumstance.

Sep 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Clayton Richard (33) tosses the ball to first base to record an out against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fifth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon usually pitch the eighth and ninth innings. If Hendricks exits early, the Cubs still have a number of options to use between their middle inning pitchers such as Wood and Richard and then their usual eight and ninth inning starters Strop and Rondon respectively.

Joe Maddon will likely play the matchup game with Fernando Rodney, Justin Grimm and Trevor Cahill who are his remaining relievers on the NLDS roster. Despite some inconsistency this season, Maddon usually pitched hard-throwing righty Justin Grimm in key situations when the Cubs needed outs. In 62 appearances this season, Grimm pitched just 49.2 innings which averages out to just over 2/3 of an inning per start.

Of course, the Chicago Cubs hope that Kyle Hendricks can pitch deep into the game tomorrow night. However, the middle relievers and the bullpen must prepare for a large workload given Hendricks history of exiting in the middle of ballgames. According to ESPN, the Chicago Cubs had the eighth best bullpen in terms of ERA (3.38) during the 2015 regular season. In the Cubs biggest game of the season tomorrow night in St. Louis, they will need their bullpen, specifically the middle relievers, to pitch well in order to come out on top in this must-win game.

Next: Chicago Cubs drop Game 1 of NLDS