THE GOLD STANDARD for a dominant reliever is one strikeout for every inning pitched. The Cubs have very nearly met that standard with their entire bullpen. Through Sunday's games—thanks largely to the performances of Carlos Marmol (1.36 strikeouts per inning pitched), Neal Cotts (1.24), Kerry Wood (1.19) and Jeff Samardzija (1.02)—Cubs relievers had fanned 359 batters in 377 innings (0.95 K/IP). It's the second-best rate in baseball, just a tick behind that of the Yankees' relief corps (0.96). Moreover, because of the emergence of Samardzija and the resurgence of Cotts—who was an integral piece of the 2005 World Series--winning White Sox—it is a bullpen peaking at the right time, with its strikeout rate accelerating to 1.09 K/IP since the All-Star break.
These are pretty impressive statistics. But they are nothing new for the Cubs, whose less vaunted bullpens of 2005, '06 and '07 led the major leagues in strikeout rate. The difference is that this year's bullpen is built for October, with Wood far more effective than Ryan Dempster was in the closer's role and with manager Lou Piniella spotting Marmol and Samardzija into high-leverage situations in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Given the more focused use of the bullpen in the postseason, the Cubs' playoff opponents are going to see only the team's top three or four relievers, who collectively look as formidable as Piniella's Nasty Boys from the early-'90s Reds and the Joe Torre bullpens of the 1996--2000 Yankees dynasty.