Paul Sullivan: With Caleb Williams watching, Cubs escape another day of bullpen blues

CHICAGO — Caleb Williams stole the show from Jameson Taillon on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field, earning his first standing ovation in Chicago after being shown on the video board during the top of the seventh inning of the Cubs’ 6-5 victory against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Taillon allowed two hits over six shutout innings before being replaced in the seventh with a 5-0 lead. The mere sight of Williams, wearing a Cubs jersey and sitting with several Bears teammates in a right-field suite, was perfectly timed for a town thirsting for a winner.

But moments after the standing-room-only crowd of 40,505 saluted the new Bears quarterback, the Cubs bullpen began to crumble, a recurring theme that changed the mood from celebratory to fidgety in a nanosecond.

It was a vintage Chicago scene as fans endured a roller coaster of emotions on a warm spring afternoon that hinted at the coming of summer.

In the end, the Cubs managed to hold on for a 6-5 win, giving Taillon his third victory and manager Craig Counsell first blood in his first head-to-head matchup against Brewers manager Pat Murphy, his longtime friend and former bench coach who was suspended for Friday’s series opener.

Hector Neris survived a shaky ninth inning for his sixth save, helping panicky Cubs fans step off the ledge, at least for the time being.

The Cubs bullpen will be suspect until further notice, making the rotation more important than ever. The cast of characters seems up to the challenge.

Taillon’s ERA is 1.13 after four starts, while Shota Imanaga (5-0) leads the majors with an 0.78 ERA, the fourth-lowest mark after six starts by any pitcher since 1912. And Javier Assad, who starts the rubber game Sunday, has a 1.97 ERA.

With ace Justin Steele returning from his hamstring injury Monday against the San Diego Padres and youngsters Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown dealing, the starters have helped relieve the stress from all of the other issues.

“We’re pretty solid,” Taillon said. “Getting Steely back is huge. Everybody saw what he did last year and he was off to a scorching-hot start there in that opening-day start (in Texas). We’re all really excited, and then when you add someone like Steely back, that’s huge no matter who he is replacing or what’s going on.

“The strength of our rotation is that we’re super deep. We’ve got six or seven really legit options, which is super exciting. And if you come in to play us for a series, it’s not like you can circle a guy and be like, ‘Man, I hope we can get him.’ Hopefully he comes in and goes, ‘Man, we’ve got three tough guys every series.’ ”

A sagging offense, the ongoing bullpen saga surrounding Adbert Alzolay and some defensive lapses by usually reliable Gold Glove middle infielders Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner have made this spring difficult to decipher. The bullpen already has eight blown saves, and after ranking sixth in 2023 with 36 defensive runs saved, the Cubs entered Saturday ranked 24th with minus-6 DRS.

Counsell doesn’t appear worried and said mistakes are part of the game. And the Cubs’ 20-14 record is good, especially considering outfielders Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki joined Steele on the injured list last month.

But the overall vibe at Wrigley on Saturday was that things could be much better.

Bellinger and Suzuki should be back next week, according to Counsell. Suzuki likely will have a short minor league rehab stint, while Bellinger figures to return without one. Looking for offense, Counsell said the Cubs will rotate at designated hitter after sending Matt Mervis back to Triple-A Iowa on Saturday and calling up Miles Mastrobuoni.

Has the absence of Bellinger and Suzuki taken a toll on the rest of the lineup?

“Look, I think we’ve got some hitters that aren’t on it right now, and it has coincided with some guys missing from the lineup,” Counsell said. “Is that stuff related? I’m not smart enough to tell you that. But certainly we’ve got a bunch of guys not swinging.

“We’ve gone through phases where we’ve taken turns and had a guy really hot in the lineup, and (since) the last two days in Boston we really haven’t. Maybe Chris Morel is the exception with (four) home runs (in the last six games). It just led to some low run-scoring games, unfortunately.”

Morel homered for the third straight day and Hoerner and Patrick Wisdom hit their first homers of the season to give Taillon a 5-0 lead. But the Brewers answered with four in the seventh off Keegan Thompson and Mark Leiter Jr. before Leiter shut the door.

Wisdom’s RBI single in the eighth made it 6-4, and Neris performed his usual great escape act in the ninth after walking the leadoff man, botching a comebacker and yielding an RBI single to William Contreras. Neris struck out Tyler Black and induced Willy Adames to hit a grounder to short that stranded the tying run on second.

“There’s definitely no panic (in Neris),” Taillon said. “I get nervous when I’m not in control of what’s going on out there. But he seems to not be nervous and he’s in control. Just glad we could pull it out.”

Neris might not be nervous, but he certainly can make everyone in the ballpark nervous watching him.

That appears to be the theme of this year’s Cubs, who can’t seem to do anything easy. But in a town that hasn’t seen a winner in quite a while, a little bit of anxiety beats apathy every time.

Hopefully Williams and his Bears teammates were taking mental notes.