‘Big Poppa’ and the resurgence of Jeremy Jeffress and Ryan Tepera for the Cubs bullpen
The game appeared to be well in hand and Jeremy Jeffress was brought in to finish the game, so they could return to Chicago.
With a 5-run lead against Cleveland on Aug. 12, Jeffress faced Domingo Santana to lead off the inning. Jeffress got ahead, working a 1-2 count and, on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, he froze Santana with a four-seam fastball in the zone for a called third strike. It was seemingly a nonchalant strikeout, especially with the lead, but Jeffress made sure to celebrate the moment.
Jeffress turned, and as he walked back on the mound, showed off his moxie, strutting his left leg up in the air as a small gesture of celebration. The moment was shared widely on social media and Jeffress shared a version of it, dubbed with a sampling of the song “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G.
E-N-E-R-G-Y— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) August 13, 2020
Jeremy Jeffress’ ERA in 7 games? 0.00 pic.twitter.com/Nsh5eS7Qy3
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Jeffress has brought “Big Poppa”-type swagger to the Cubs’ bullpen. And he isn’t alone.
Ryan Tepera, who had his fair share of struggles last season in Toronto, has been resurgent for the Cubs, too, and has shown it with fist pumps and outward demonstrations of joy on the mound.
“They’re highly, highly competitive,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I think you see JJ grunting on the mound and snorting and fire-breathing coming out of his nose basically and then you see Tep with the fist pump as he punches out the side [on Monday].”
Tepera pitched in just 23 games last season and had a 4.98 ERA with a 1.292 WHIP for the Blue Jays in 2019.
Jeffress joined the Cubs in the offseason after he was released towards the end of the 2019 season by the Brewers. It was the final act in a tough 2019 season where he posted a 5.02 ERA and a 1.365 WHIP for the Brew Crew a year after being an All-Star and part of the core of arguably the best bullpen in baseball.
“I think [Jeffress is] a veteran guy that’s done some things in the game and had some success and is let go by a team that they’ve been with a while and struggled a minute has something to prove,” David Ross said. “Feeling like you’ve got a guy that has something to prove is exciting and fun. You’ve got that focus when you get out there on the mound that kinda takes it up a notch sometimes where you’re just ready to compete again.”
Jeffress, along Tepera, were brought in and have exceeded expectations. Jeffress has arguably been the ace of the bullpen, pitching to a 1.64 ERA and a 0.636 WHIP in 11 innings of work this season. Tepera, meanwhile, has a 3.12 ERA and 0.808 WHIP.
They’ve formed one of the more resurgent bullpens in baseball. On the season, the Cubs bullpen ranks 23rd with a 5.50 ERA. Since the calendar turned to August, though, the Cubs are 11th with a 3.86 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and an opponent’s batting average of .214.
Whether it’s Jeffress, Tepera, Rowan Wick (who also has been terrific with a 1.13 ERA) the production hasn’t gone unnoticed, whether it’s by Ross and his staff or by teammates.
“Wick has been huge for us,” Craig Kimbrel said after Wednesday’s win over the Cardinals. “For him to come in and pretty much, 8th, 9th close it out, whatever’s asked, he’s getting as many outs as needed.
“Jeffress has just been great. Up and down, guys have stepped up in big spots and have been able to fill that spot, obviously, the last two weeks or so when I’ve been down and not throwing like I should. Those guys have done an unbelievable job. We have a deep bullpen and we need it.”
Jeffress and Tepera went into the season hoping to prove they could still be strong, viable bullpen arms on a contending team, and they’ve proven that.
“I think with both of those guys as well, you see a chip on their shoulder to go out and prove that maybe last year was more of a blip on the radar instead of what their new norm is,” Hottovy said. “That’s that willingness and that drive that they have to be the best and I think they come to the park everyday really wanting to get better, really wanting to improve and also to go out and prove that they’re here for a reason.”
Jeffress has taken “Big Poppa” a step further, too. He’s taken on the role of elder advisor for the younger guys in the Cubs bullpen. He started that in spring training in Arizona and has continued it in the regular season.
“He’s been doing a great job for us and the things you guys don’t see – he’s a mentor down there in the bullpen, gets the young guys in line and studying and paying attention to the details,” Ross said. “How to handle moments, those conversations, JJ has been everything and then some for us in so many different ways.”
Cubs fans will gladly take more Tepera fist bumps and Jeffress’ struts and shimmies, especially if they keep performing like they have been. And Jeffress has earned the opportunity to have plenty of more “Big Poppa” moments for the Cubs.