Cubs' Theo Epstein says bullpen improvement key down the stretch

CHICAGO -- Exactly one year ago Saturday, Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, along with other members of the front office, watched from the left-field bleachers as the team played the Milwaukee Brewersat Wrigley Field.

The relaxed setting to watch the game was understandable, considering the Cubs had clinched the National League Central the day before.

Fast-forward to Friday as the Cubs prepared to open a series against St. Louiswhile just three games up on the Cardinals and Brewers. Epstein feels good about his team's chances to repeat as division champion -- just not 2016 good.

"We have to do a lot of things to get where we want to go," Epstein said while sitting in the Cubs' dugout early Friday afternoon. "We have so much work ahead of us just to accomplish our first goal. ... Success or failure of this regular season really rides on how we play the next 16 games."

Epstein went on to list the things that he would like to see out of his championship club. First off, the Cubs need to hit good pitching. That has been a problem all year, as they have just a .306 on-base percentage against four of the top five pitching staffs in the NL.

Manager Joe Maddon and Epstein voiced a bigger concern for the bullpen. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cubs' relief staff leads the majors in walks since the All-Star break and is 14th in the NL in ERA (5.24).

"We have to keep our starters going, getting them deep in games and we have to get our bullpen going," Epstein said. "Bullpens go through peaks and valleys and we're in a valley right now.

"It's unfortunate because this is the time of year you want to be clicking on all cylinders, but things can change quickly. You get 1-2 guys locked in ... the next thing you know you look up and you're in good shape. It's a Murphy's Law type thing in our pen."

The biggest mystery is lefty Justin Wilson, who was acquired on trade deadline day and has walked 14 batters in 12 innings since coming to the Cubs. His 6.39 ERA isn't giving his new team much confidence, which has led to the Cubs returning Mike Montgomery to the bullpen. It also led to the Cubs starting rookie Jen-Ho Tseng on Thursday, a risky move that almost backfired when he gave up five runs in three innings, though the offense bailed him out in a 14-6 win.

"The story is not written on him," Epstein said of Wilson. "He's a really quality pitcher who's struggling right now. What do you do with those guys? You work to get him locked in and you look for the right opportunity because they're always one outing away."

The Cubs are also fighting injuries. Saturday is a big day for Jake Arrieta, who's recovering from a hamstring strain. If his bullpen session goes well he could get three starts before the end of the season. Reliever Hector Rondon has been shut down for the moment as his elbow is bothering him, while shortstop Addison Russell is nearing a return from a case of plantar fasciitis.

But Epstein kept coming back to his bullpen as his main focus, though he was sure to stress it's not the only one.

"We're fighting and scratching in order to have a winning bullpen against good teams," he said. "We can do that, but if you play three to five tight games in a row you tend to get stretched. The more depth you have, the better off you are. We're fighting harder than usual at this time of year to achieve that depth. That's just an honest assessment."

Epstein's bullpen should be tested often the next two weeks as the Cubs play 11 of their next 13 games against the Cardinals and Brewers, beginning Friday. It will go a long way to determining the winner of the division.

"You have years where most things go your way and you have years where more things than usual seem like a challenge," Epstein said. "My favorite pennant races are the ones when you're sitting in the bleachers on Sept. 16. I kind of like those."
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