Fielding woes prove costly as Cubs fall to Reds in extras


Fielding woes prove costly as Cubs fall to Reds in extras

Though he’s still mighty confident his squad is good enough to make the postseason, the Cubs’ defense has been one of Joe Maddon’s biggest frustrations through two months and change of his first season on the North Side.

Friday, those troubles in the field hurt the Cubs in a 5-4 extra-inning loss to the visiting Reds at Wrigley Field.

Addison Russell’s first-inning error opened the gates to begin an uncharacteristic performance from Jason Hammel, who’s shone at nearly every turn so far this season. Friday, he wasn’t on his A-game, and Russell’s error didn’t help.

The rookie second baseman botched a ground ball, allowing Skip Schumaker to reach to lead off the game. Two RBI doubles off the bats of Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Todd Frazier followed, and a Brayan Pena RBI single made it a three-run first for the visitors. Two of those runs, though, were unearned.

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Later, with the game tied at 4 in the top of the 10th, Kris Bryant booted a grounder at third, allowing Frazier to reach base to lead off that pivotal frame. Three hitters later, a Eugenio Suarez basehit through a drawn-in Cubs infield brought home Frazier, the go-ahead and game-winning run.

Despite their importance — three of the Reds’ five runs Friday were unearned — Maddon didn’t think the errors by his rookie infielders were too much to be upset about.

“That’s the kind of stuff that our guys are going to start making more routinely,” Maddon said. “If anything, if you look at our errors on defense this year, it’s been more of that kind of a play than a more difficult play. And I think as our guys start to gain more experience, you’re going to start to see that stuff go away.

“I can’t be happier with our group right now. I’m not even a moment of being upset.”

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Part of his lack of concern likely dealt with the fact that the Cubs kept exhibiting their 2015 tendency of never saying die.

Just one inning after Cincinnati’s three-run first, the North Siders plated a pair of runs to answer. And it was the two most responsible for the Reds’ early outburst who made amends: Hammel and Russell each came up with run-scoring hits, Hammel chugging around the bases to score from first on a Russell RBI double.

Three innings later — after Frazier’s solo blast made it a 4-2 Reds lead — Starlin Castro delivered a clutch two-run, game-tying home run off Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who had settled into a pretty impressive groove following the Cubs’ two-run second. Cueto retired 10 of 11 before Bryant led off the bottom of the sixth with a single and Castro went yard two batters later to tie the game.

“That’s what we’ve been doing since Day 1 of spring training: never quit,” Hammel said. “There are 27 outs in a baseball game. If you’re mailing it in after five innings, you shouldn’t even play nine. Why are we even here? It’s our job to continue to play. The game can go both ways in a nine-inning ballgame, so you never know what you’re going to get. As long as we’re out there playing hard and continuing to put good at-bats together, which we have been doing, we’ve still got a shot to win.”

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The Cubs had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth — credit Jay Bruce’s amazing diving catch on Jonathan Herrera’s drive to right-center field for keeping the Cubs from celebrating a regulation walk-off — but problems both expected and unexpected proved the difference.

The fielding issues have started to become a norm for the Cubs, who are second only to the Brewers when it comes to errors committed by National League teams. Friday’s miscue was Russell’s eighth, the most among NL second basemen. Bryant’s error was also his eighth, tied with the Pirates’ Josh Harrison for the most among NL third basemen.

But Hammel’s struggles were less predictable. He’s turned in an All-Star type of season so far, and he came into Friday’s start on a real hot streak. In eight starts prior, he had a 2.03 ERA and had struck out 60 hitters over 57 2/3 innings. Friday, his five innings of work and four strikeouts matched season lows.

“Just fighting myself,” Hammel said. “Just basically out of sync today. I wasn’t on top of the baseball like I have been, and it cost me a lot of deep counts. Basically, I battled for five innings. The fact that we still had a chance to still be in it and win when I left, it was nice because it could have been a lot worse.

“Especially with Cueto on the mound, you can’t spot a team like that three runs early and expect to come out and make it an easy one.”

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But, much like the fielding troubles, Maddon wasn’t concerned about Hammel. Heck, he did only give up two earned runs.

“He just wasn’t on top of his game today,” Maddon said. “That happens to every good starting pitcher. I’m not at all concerned. I though he battled through it well, gave us a chance.”

The Cubs did get a terrific performance from the bullpen. A quartet of relievers pitched four scoreless innings after Hammel’s departure. Zac Rosscup, James Russell, Jason Motte and Pedro Strop retired 12 of the 13 batters they faced without allowing a hit. Hector Rondon pitched the 10th, surrendering the game-winning run, though it wasn’t earned.

So while the young Cubs are learning to win, there’s perhaps another lesson in this season of change: Don’t get too down about losses like these.

“Here’s my takeaway walking up the tunnel: If we play that game every night, I’ll accept that. You’re talking about effort and want to and all the other stuff you’re looking for, the will to win,” Maddon said. “That’s going to happen, you’re going to make mistakes. But if we play that game often enough this year, we’re going to definitely get ourselves in the playoffs.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”