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Monday, May 5, 2014
A learning experience for Rondon

By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- When it came down to getting the biggest out of the game, Rick Renteria didn't hesitate, he stuck with his best reliever. Unfortunately for the Chicago Cubs, Yadier Molina bested Hector Rondon on Sunday night as the Cubs fell to the St. Louis Cardinals 5-4.

Rondon came into the ninth with the score tied 3-3, and after striking out the first batter he faced, he allowed a walk and a single. Rondon then struck out Peter Bourjos, bringing up lefty Matt Carpenter with two men on and two out. Renteria had left-hander Wesley Wright ready in the bullpen but decided to stick with Rondon. The young right-hander ended up walking Carpenter, then gave up a single to Molina that scored the two deciding runs.

Hector Rondon
Hector Rondon, shown pitching earlier this season, had a rough outing Sunday as he pitched in his fourth straight game for the Cubs.
After the game, Renteria made it clear he was sticking with Rondon in that situation, preferring to have Rondon in there to possibly face Molina rather than playing the matchup game against Carpenter.

"In the end, with the strength of Hector, regardless of who he's facing, lefty or righty, it's a good match for him," Renteria said.

Renteria is right that Rondon has proved to be strong against whomever he's facing this season. While righties entered the game with a measly .393 OPS against him, lefties didn't fare much better, managing a .599 OPS. And while Wright had given up five singles in 15 plate appearances against lefties this year, his career splits show he's definitely stronger when facing left-handed batters (.655 OPS against). Renteria has been going to Wright more often than not of late, as he appears to have passed James Russell as the high-leverage lefty out of the bullpen. But on Sunday, Renteria rode his hottest reliever.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs scored when Molina allowed a pitch to get by him with a runner on third. It was ruled a wild pitch, but it appeared to be a ball the perennial Gold Glove winner often stops. Molina made up for the mishap with his big single in the ninth, fouling off multiple pitches before grounding a ball up the middle just out of the reach of shortstop Starlin Castro.

"He fought me on a lot of pitches," Rondon said. "I tried to go away, away, away and finally I tried to go in. I missed the location, but still made a good pitch."

Maybe of bigger concern than not going to Wright against Carpenter was that Sunday marked the fourth straight game over five days in which Rondon had pitched. But with an off day Thursday and tossing only a combined 20 pitches on Friday and Saturday, Rondon said he felt strong.

"It doesn't bother me because my arm feels good," Rondon said. "So I tried to make a good pitch."

Rondon was also uncharacteristically wild on the night, walking two batters after totaling only four walks in his previous 15 1/3 innings. The walks appeared to be a theme on the evening, as three of the four runners who crossed home for the Cubs reached base that way.

Starter Jason Hammel also battled his command, issuing a pair of two-out walks in both the second and third innings that led to runs.

"Yeah, those irked me pretty good," Hammel said. "Just can't do that, two-out walks. Two quick outs, put a guy on base and bad things happen, that's what happened tonight. Just tried to find the command tonight, really wasn't there. It was a grind, but I made pitches for most of the night. But, yeah, two out walks, in the big leagues, those are no good."

Hammel still tossed six quality innings, giving up three runs and seven hits, striking out five with those two costly walks.

In the end, the story was Rondon struggling for the first time this season. Rondon has gone from a little-used Rule 5 pick to the Cubs' most important arm in an ever-evolving and improving bullpen, in only a year.

Though Renteria is still holding off on officially naming Rondon the team's closer, it's clear the rookie manager is willing to lean on him in big, late-game situations. Renteria will just chalk Sunday night up to a learning experience for the talented reliever.

"Every game is a test, he needs to keep his head up, obviously," Renteria said. "Games like this are gonna happen also."