For all the wrong-way attention the Cubs' starting rotation has received recently, the leaned-on bullpen has held up especially well over the first month of the season.
Considering the Cubs top the majors in average bullpen innings per game (3 2/3), the pen's ability to hang in the upper half of the majors in performance might rank with the emergence of rookie Darwin Barney among early upset specials on the North Side this season.
Manager Mike Quade emphasized the work Justin Berg did Thursday night to preserve the bullpen arms by pitching 3 2/3 innings after relieving Ryan Dempster in the first inning - similar to the 3 1/3-inning job Jeff Stevens did six days earlier after Casey Coleman's short start.
Not that it's helping the Cubs win games at this point - with that much relief work being a pretty bad sign for a team's competitive pitching ability.
But how young guys in particular, such as Berg, Stevens, red-hot Jeff Samardzija and Marcos Mateo, have competed in middle-inning support of back-end veterans Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol could be important later in the season (or more likely beyond).
And then when the starting pitching does what it's supposed to - like Carlos Zambrano's strong six innings to get a lead to the late innings - the bullets figure to be there to finish strong.
Like Wood, Marshall and Marmol did with a scoreless inning each.
``Even when you get a mess like [Thursday] night, there's a silver lining when you get opportunities and you make the most of them,'' manager Mike Quade said. ``I think Samardzija in particular has done that very well the last few times out, and maybe been presented with more opportunities than we expected. ... He's come of age and done a nice job.''
After struggling the first week of the season, Samardzija has produced five straight scoreless appearances and has a streak of 10 straight scoreless innings going back to April 12 - lowering his season ERA to 2.93.
But he's not the only one helping pick up some of the starting slack.
Despite inconsistency early, Mateo has been leaned on for 14 appearances, tied for most in the league. John Grabow and Marshall have 13 each, and Marmol 12.
In all, the bullpen with the second-most innings pitched in the majors overall (89 1/3) has a 5-3 record and 3.32 ERA, along with 8.66 strikeouts per nine innings (second in majors).
In fact, the pen has a collective 1.38 ERA over its previous six games (26 innings)- a stretch that included four straight scoreless games.
And all this against a backdrop of Coleman and James Russell doing rotation fill-in work for injured starters Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner - their bullpen availability sometimes a daily decision.
In fact, Friday night, Coleman and Russell were both considered available - which delayed for another day Quade's decision on how he'll cover Sunday's and Monday's starts.
``The bullpen is exactly what we thought it would be and more right now,'' Quade said. ``Once we get the starting pitching straightened out, it should be a lot of fun to manage these guys because I'll have a ton of options.''