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STL@CHC: Arrieta fans seven in first start of 2014

For all that's been made of the Mets' bullpen lately -- three power pitchers no older than 26 years, plus 25 1/3 innings of three-run ball in five games against the Phillies -- it is about to face a team with a relief corps that has been one of the best and is about to get even better.

New York will visit the Cubs on Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field, where Chicago closer Hector Rondon is expected to come back from paternity leave in time for the first contest of the three-game set. Rondon and his wife had their first child, a son, on Friday.

Rondon's return should stabilize a bullpen that posted a 3.00 ERA in May but struggled to the tune of five runs in 12 1/3 innings while dropping two of three games to the Brewers over the weekend. Rondon, Brian Schlitter and Neil Ramirez have been the anchors of that 'pen, combining for a 1.69 ERA with 13 holds and six saves.

That is a stark contrast from the 3.62 ERA that Chicago relievers had in March/April, back when righty Jose Veras blew his first two save opportunities before losing the closer title. Since May 12 -- when the Cubs ended a three-game losing streak with a 12-run win over St. Louis -- the bullpen's ERA is 1.94.

"They've settled in," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "We've tried to at this point still put them in situations where we feel they're comfortable. Even with Veras, we've used him in a couple two-inning stints and see if he can settle down, and he's done well.

"As we continue to move forward, guys feel comfortable in whatever situation we put them in. It's important that whenever we give them the baseball they know they have a job to do, and they do it."

Strong relief or not, the Cubs have one significant advantage over the Mets: no game on Monday. While Chicago enjoyed the coveted off-day at home, the Mets beat the Phillies to finish off their fourth win in a five-game series in Philadelphia. The weekend included the halfway point of a stretch in which the Mets play 20 games in 20 days.

One of the highlights of that run has been right-hander Zack Wheeler (4.31 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), who will get the ball opposite righty Jake Arrieta on Tuesday. Wheeler has lasted at least six innings in four of his past five starts, but his most recent was his best. He tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball while striking out nine and allowing four hits against Philly. He also did not walk a batter for just the second time this season.

"You're going to see nights like that out of him," manager Terry Collins said afterward. "He certainly has that ability, as we've seen in the past. He came into that reputation of dominating a game, and tonight he dominated this game."

Wheeler, who is approaching the one-year anniversary of his Major League debut, has never faced the Cubs.

Mets: Bullpen reshuffling continues
When the Mets released Jose Valverde after he coughed up a late lead May 26, the move seemed innocuous enough. The organization chose a young righty with potential -- Vic Black -- over a veteran who had been ineffective.

But then New York played 14 innings Friday, and 14 more innings Saturday. That resulted in the calling up of Buddy Carlyle and Dana Eveland prior to Saturday and Sunday's respective contests, giving the bullpen a completely new look over just two weeks ago.

Those fresh faces joined a relief corps whose roles at the back end had become clear only recently. Jenrry Mejia, who has taken a stranglehold on the closer role, pitched five times during one six-day stretch last week, while Jeurys Familia has seemingly become Collins' eighth-inning man.

Cubs: Arrieta solid at back end of rotation
Jeff Samardzija has gotten most of the headlines for Cubs starters this season -- and reasonably so -- but since returning from the disabled list in early May, Arrieta has provided about as much as Chicago could hope for from a No. 5 starter.

Arrieta has averaged five innings across his five outings, but he has yet to throw more than 94 pitches since returning from a right shoulder issue that kept him on the shelf the first month of the season. Opposing teams have plated three or fewer earned runs in four of his outings.

A 1.50 WHIP indicates Arrieta might work into and out of more jams than his 3.20 ERA shows, but he does know how to rear back when he needs to, striking out 26 batters in 25 1/3 innings. His 9.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate is tops among Cubs starters.

Worth noting
• Nate Schierholtz enters the series four hits shy of 500 for his career.

• The Mets are winners of six of their past seven games and seven of their past nine.

• Cubs catcher Welington Castillo came out of Sunday's game as a precautionary measure because of a sore back. He expected to be ready for Tuesday. Infielder Luis Valbuena also expected to be able to play; he had been sidelined with an minor abdominal injury.

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