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SportsMonday: Bullpen Beware, Maddon At Work

Let's sink our teeth into this week's Cubs intrigue shall we?

We are coming up on three-and-a-half seasons into the CCC Era, i.e., the one featuring Consistent Cubs Contention. And this team continues to almost never disappoint as far as dramas unfolding on top of dramas.

This past week was another successful one on the diamond, although it was ridiculously tenuous. But for Jason Heyward coming up with a two-strike, two-out, ninth-inning grand slam to save the Cubs from what looked like sure defeat (a 5-3 deficit going into that pitch), the Cubs go 3-3 against the mediocre Phillies and Pirates at home. In other words, they disappoint. Instead they went 4-2 and picked up ground on the division-leading Brewers (who they trail by a half-game after Sunday's action).

The biggest development of the weekend has not been fully explored.

Joe Maddon irresponsibly had Brandon Morrow warm up to possibly pitch in the ninth inning of Friday's 3-1 win over the Pirates. The plan had been to let Pedro Strop finish the game but when Strop gave up a baserunner, Maddon gave in to his worst instincts (again) and had Morrow get up for a third consecutive night.

Strop steadied the ship and finished the game. But just warming up Morrow after he had pitched the previous two ninth innings had consequences. Morrow did not close on Saturday and on Sunday the manager announced the Morrow had told him he was tired.

Joe, Joe, Joe. And Jim, Jim, Jim. Once again let me attempt to remind pitching coach Jim Hickey - this is why you are here! To stop the manager before he burns out another reliever with classic closer stuff! And warming up Morrow on Friday was an obvious, stupid mistake. If Morrow goes on the DL, will that be enough of a spur to you to step in and challenge the manager in the strongest possible terms when he goes to make moves like this?

Maddon wasn't done.

Sunday afternoon played out as another chapter in the "Overusing Relievers Does Damage" songbook. Just as over-used Steve Cishek gave up a huge hit earlier in the week, the one that sparked the Phillies comeback that resulted in the aforementioned 5-3 lead in the ninth, over-used Brian Duensing struggled on Sunday. These guys are going to burn out physically when they are used this much and opposing teams are developing ever-better scouting reports on them, giving hitters ever better chances to take advantage.

Am I cherry-picking here? Of course I am. Maddon has done an amazing job with this team over the long haul of regular seasons. But he has a blind spot regarding bullpen usage, and while it is infuriating at times, the overall package that he brings as a manager means that Theo et al must continue to try to work through things with him. But there is so much more season to go and it would be a shame if this pitching staff were to be fatally diminished by the manager not handling things better.

The other thing that drove people crazy Sunday was the Cubs' fifth inning at the plate. I must admit I was cautiously optimistic about the Cubs' chances when they sent up Tommy La Stella to pinch hit with two on and nobody out. And yes, Hendricks probably could have given them another inning on the mound, but it made sense to take the shot with La Stella, who is only the best pinch-hitter in the league. And the analytics definitely say at this point that in that situation, a baseball team gives itself its best chance at success by having a great pinch-hitter hit away (rather than bunt).

What killed me was what happened after La Stella hit into a double play - Javy Baez strode to the plate. That happened because Maddon had inexplicably inserted Baez into the leadoff spot on Sunday after Kris Bryant had two great games in that spot on Friday and Saturday. Javy has had a knack for big hits this season but he is still more likely to strike out than virtually anyone else on the team, and sure enough he struck out here.

One can kind of understand the manager moving Bryant out of the leadoff spot because of match-ups, but moving Javy in? Come on, man.

The Cubs head north to Milwaukee for what should be three games of fun starting tonight at 7:10. I am oh so looking forward to it.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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