Putting together an effective bullpen can be a maddening task, even for the smartest guys in the room.
The current Cubs management team, which is considered pretty bright, is faring little better in the bullpen department than past regimes.
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Cubs scouting reportCubs vs. Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park
TV: Comcast SportsNet Plus-2 Friday; WGN Saturday and Sunday
Radio: WGN 720-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Carlos Villanueva (1-4) vs. Matt Garza (0-2) Friday at 7:10 p.m.; Tavis Wood (1-2) vs. Marco Estrada (1-1) Saturday at 6:10 p.m.; Jason Hammel (3-1) vs. Wily Peralta (3-0) Sunday at 1:10 p.m.
At a glance: The Brewers are the surprise team of the National League so far. They had Thursday off, and their 16-6 record was the best in baseball. Ryan Braun is among the league leaders in home runs (6), RBI (17), runs, total bases and slugging percentage. Former Cub Aramis Ramirez has 16 RBI. Milwaukee pitching ranked second in the NL with an ERA of 2.52. The Cubs were 6-13 against the Brewers last year, 3-7 at Miller Park. Cubs batter ranked 14th in runs, ninth in on-base percentage and 12th in slugging. Emilio Bonifacio continues to be among the leaders in batting average and OBP, while Anthony Rizzo entered Thursday third in OBP (. 432).
Next: Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, Monday-Wednesday
-- Bruce Miles
Thursday brought another call to arms and some mop-up work for veterans who have been struggling or used little.
Before the Cubs went out and lost 5-2 in quiet fashion to the Arizona Diamondbacks, they recalled young relievers Zac Rosscup and Neil Ramirez from Triple-A Iowa. They sent reliever Blake Parker back to Iowa and put outfielder Justin Ruggiano on the disabled list.
The Cubs now have a 13-man pitching staff, with eight guys crowding things down in the pen. And this from a team that routinely is getting 7 innings from its starting pitchers.
This is also from a team that thought it had a stronger bullpen coming out of spring training.
"There are always different variables and scenarios that play out," said first-year manager Rick Renteria, whose team fell to 7-14 after splitting the four-game series with the 7-18 D'Backs. "I still feel very confident in the arms that we have. It's just a matter of, I guess, finding that nice sync that gets us through the latter part of the ballgame.
"The reality is, you win or lose ballgames in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. You have to learn from these experiences."
The closer's situation is "organic," Renteria said. With Jose Veras having long lost the job and Pedro Strop struggling in Wednesday's bullpen blowup (a 7-5 loss), Renteria is trying to grow something organic each day.
Starting pitcher Edwin Jackson gave the Cubs their fourth straight start of at least 7 innings Thursday, but he gave up 3 runs over the first two innings. The Cubs trailed 3-1 in the eighth, when Renteria went to Veras to get him some work.
Veras walked the first batter he faced, upping his walks total to 10 in just 5⅔ innings. He also gave up 2 hits and 2 runs. Wesley Wright, an all-but-forgotten veteran lefty, pitched the ninth and worked out of minor trouble.
The bullpen has an ERA of 5.70 and a feverish WHIP of 1.86.
There's no timetable for getting Veras back into the closer's role, but stabilizing the pen from the back forward would do a world of good for the Cubs.
"Every day when we talk, he's very confident," Renteria said of Veras. "He's always exuding confidence and asking me, 'Hey, use me. I'm good.' It's not like he's sitting back there waiting, but he's also said, 'Use me when you need me, however you want to use me.'
"I thought today was as good an opportunity as any to get him in there. Obviously, he did give up 2 runs there, but he did look a little better."
As far as Jackson goes, it was his first quality start of the season as he allowed 5 hits and 3 runs over his 7 innings. After throwing 40 pitches over the first two innings, he quieted the Diamondbacks the rest of the way.
"I just had to slow the game down a little bit," said Jackson, who fell to 1-2 with a 5.02 ERA. "Early in the game, I felt like I was rushing a little bit, one of those days where you feel like you don't have your best stuff so you feel like you're trying to make it happen. You just have to take a step back and slow the game down and let it come to me instead of going out and trying to take it."
At 7-14, the Cubs have the same record as last year, when they finished 66-96. They've got a tough stretch coming up at Milwaukee and Cincinnati before they come home to face the Cardinals. Staying positive can be difficult.
"It's tough, because we lose a lot of games close," said shortstop Starlin Castro. "It hurts sometimes, losing a game you used to be winning. And it's a little tough. If we can stay working hard and stay positive, then things are supposed to change."