Cubs' 3-headed relief monster devouring big innings

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Outside of the 2-0 scores, there’s at least one commonality between the Cubs’ last two wins.

The Cubs got a lead, and Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel came in and slammed the door late to secure the victory.

Call it a three-headed monster. Call it a lockdown trio. Whatever you want to call it, the Tepera-Chafin-Kimbrel formula has been a recipe for success for the Cubs this season.

“When those guys are in there, especially when we’ve got the lead, you feel like your chances of winning are really good,” manager David Ross said. 

Sunday vs. Miami is evidence of that.

Tepera entered in the sixth and tossed two shutout innings without allowing a baserunner, striking out two. Then came Chafin, who tossed a 1-2-3 eighth.

It all paved the way for Kimbrel, who clinched the 2-0 win with a 1-2-3 ninth, striking out two.

The Cubs bullpen has played a huge role in their rise to first place after a sub-.500 April, entering Sunday with the best ERA in baseball (2.67).

“That’s been the strength of our team,” Ross said. “There’s no secret.” 

But Tepera, Chafin and Kimbrel have been the backbone of the group. Combined, they haven’t allowed an earned run over their last 48 appearances (one unearned run), dating back to May 8.

In those 49 1/3 innings, they’ve surrendered 13 hits and eight walks, striking out 62.

What puts those guys in position for success is the Cubs having a lead by the sixth inning. They’re 32-2 this season when entering the sixth with a lead, including Sunday, when Alec Mills got them there with five shutout innings.

“If I can go out and give five or six and just keep us in the game,” Mills said, “I think everybody out here has full confidence in that bullpen doing what they do best, getting the job done late.”

Even in New York this week, when the Cubs lost three of four, the bullpen kept them in three games that the rotation pitched five or less innings. 

In fact, Cubs fans were calling for Ross to go to some of his high-leverage arms Wednesday, when they trailed 3-1 in a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fourth. But burning high-leverage arms in those moments is not a recipe for success.

“We don't talk about it enough when you lose baseball games,” Ross said. “When guys like Brad Wieck suck down some innings and Cory Abbott suck down some innings, you can save the guys that you're going to go to when you have a lead. 

“That's how bullpens really find success.”

The bullpen continues to be a strength for the Cubs, and it all starts — or, perhaps more fittingly, ends with Tepera, Chafin and Kimbrel.

“It does give me a lot of confidence to go to those guys,” Ross said. “A huge part of our success is coming from that part of our game.”

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