'The most rednecks in one bullpen I've ever seen': Cubs bullpen in shutdown mode

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs center fielder Ian Happ, left, celebrates with relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel after they defeated the Miami Marlins in a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, June 20, 2021.

    Chicago Cubs center fielder Ian Happ, left, celebrates with relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel after they defeated the Miami Marlins in a baseball game in Chicago, Sunday, June 20, 2021.

 
 
Updated 6/22/2021 7:55 AM

The best bullpen in baseball shares a bond that goes beyond holding leads in the late innings.

"It's hands down, the most rednecks in one bullpen I've ever seen," lefthander Andrew Chafin said. "I'm not saying that has anything to do with it.

 

"We're just all down there on the same page, talking about the same stuff, same interests. It's a lot easier to kind of bond with people with common interests."

Checking the list of hometowns among Cubs relievers, it does start to make sense. Dan Winkler is from downstate Effingham, Craig Kimbrel and Keegan Thompson are from Alabama, Rex Brothers from Tennessee, Ryan Tepera and Brad Wieck hail from Texas.

Chafin is actually the Northerner of the group. He was born in Kettering, Ohio, and played in college at Kent State.

"It's definitely one of the more country-ish colleges," Chafin said. "People hear Ohio and think Cleveland or Cincinnati or something like that. They don't realize it's mostly farmland out there."

So during their down time, the Cubs' relievers typically talk about hunting and fishing. Chafin said some of them have farms.

When they're on the mound, it's opposing hitters that do most of the fishing, to use a bad baseball pun. The Cubs' bullpen not only has the best ERA in all of MLB at 2.63, it's starting to look historically good.

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The A-team of relievers -- Kimbrel, Chafin and Tepera -- have combined to throw 49⅓ consecutive scoreless innings. May 15 in Detroit was the last time any of the three gave up an earned run.

Tepera has actually been the most impressive. During his scoreless streak of 20⅓ innings, he has allowed just 3 hits, 2 walks and struck out 26.

"They're doing a phenomenal job," Cubs manager David Ross said. "That's been the strength of the team, there's no secret. Have I seen anything like this? I was part of a team in Atlanta that was pretty good, and Craig was in that group."

Ross has a good memory. He'd moved onto Boston by then, but the 2013 Braves and 2003 Dodgers have posted the best bullpen ERAs in this century at 2.46.

Both of those teams had strong closers -- Kimbrel had 50 saves for that Braves team, Eric Gagne 55 for the '03 Dodgers -- and a couple of other relievers with ERAs below 2.00.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The most renowned bullpen of modern times might be the Reds in 1990, which rode the so-called "Nasty Boys" to the World Series title. That group was led by Randy Myers (31 saves), Rob Dibble (1.74 ERA) and Norm Charlton, but a little unusual since Charlton also started 16 games that season.

As the season approaches the halfway mark, the Cubs' bullpen matches up well. Not only with Kimbrel (0.61 ERA, 20 saves), Chafin (1.78) and Tepera (1.82); but Winkler (1.46), Thompson (1.85), Wieck (0.00) and Tommy Nance (1.80) also have posted low numbers, and the group might get even better when lefty Justin Steele returns from a hamstring strain.

In theory, the Cubs have enough quality pitchers where all they need is five decent innings from the starter. Getting the lead has been a challenge lately, with the Cubs' offense slumping.

"They really enjoy coming to the park every day," said Alec Mills, who has been both a starter and reliever for the Cubs this year. "They're really awesome guys to be around. The bullpen's a lot of fun.

"But at the same time, we all kind of know when it's time to lock it down and time to go to work. They do their routines and know what works best for them. Obviously they're all in a groove right now and let's not change that."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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