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Cubs, Quade count on power in the pen

Chicago Cubs closer Carlos Marmol celebrates after Cubs defeated Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 baseball game Sunday May 16 2010 Chicago. (AP

Chicago Cubs closer Carlos Marmol celebrates after the Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 in a baseball game Sunday, May 16, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: May 1, 2011 12:39AM

The Cubs have played up the idea of improved team chemistry this year. They’ve talked about carryover from last year’s late-season success under manager Mike Quade. And some of them even believe their underdog status in the National League Central could play into their favor.

But if there’s a single, tangible difference-maker lurking in the weeds as they prepare for Friday’s season opener, it might be the Kerry Wood-fortified bullpen anchored by one of the most dominant closers in the game in Carlos Marmol.

Assuming the starting rotation can stay reasonably healthy and competitive enough to avoid more than an occasional overuse of the relief corps, the bullpen looks as powerful and potentially reliable as it has in at least four years. Then, Marmol’s emergence in a setup role and Wood’s late-summer return from injury keyed the rise of the No. 3 bullpen in the National League (3.76 ERA) and keyed a run to the ’07 playoffs.

And it almost certainly will have to be a key for the Cubs if they are to succeed going into the season with a lineup that looks no better than third-best in the division and with a group of fielders that was among the worst in the majors last year.

‘‘I think our bullpen is one of the best in the big leagues right now,’’ said Marmol, who set a major league record last year with 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings — especially important because he also put 7.0 on base via walk or hit batter every nine innings.

‘‘The bullpen is going to be a big key for us.’’

It usually is for a team that makes the playoffs — and especially for a team that advances in the postseason. Three of the last four World Series champions had one of the top two bullpens in the majors the year they won, including 2010, when six of the top eight bullpens were in the playoffs.

On the other hand, it’s been a particular sore spot for the Cubs in the disappointments of the last two seasons. The Cubs’ pen ranked in the bottom third in the majors both years, including next-to-last in 2010.

While a healthy Wood and a status-quo Marmol are well recognized around baseball as power-pitching All-Stars, left-hander Sean Marshall is an underrated star in the group. His 10.85 strikeouts per nine innings put him among the top five in NL setup men.

‘‘I’m sitting in a pretty good seat when it comes to the seventh inning on, as far as having no worries about going to any of those three in any situation,’’ Quade said.

‘‘It’s a luxury that not a lot of guys have.’’

Not surprisingly, Baseball Prospectus projects the Cubs’ bullpen will strike out more per nine innings than anybody in the NL except San Diego and the Dodgers.

But despite that power, the pen’s overall left-right balance, its big-league experience of every reliever, and the young power arms among the complementary guys, BP doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the Cubs’ rotation keeping the pen’s innings down, nor the abilities of the middle guys to handle it.

But if lefty John Grabow’s return to health also means a return to his 2008-09 production levels, and James Russell and Jeff Samardzija — in particular — can be mix-and-match contributors, then it could come down to how Quade’s manages the pen in his first full year as a big-league manager.

‘‘We can talk about Marsh, Marm and Woody all day long, and it’s fun to talk about them,’’ Quade said. ‘‘But we know it’s going to take a lot more than those guys. … Those [other] guys are going to be important.’’

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