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October issues for Cubs exposed in Game 1 loss to Pirates

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October issues for Cubs exposed in Game 1 loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH – All these issues will be magnified in October.

The Cubs didn’t measure up to the Pittsburgh Pirates in this potential playoff preview, unraveling in the eighth inning of a 5-4 Game 1 loss and exposing their trouble spots during Tuesday’s doubleheader at PNC Park.

“There’s a lot of gifted runs in that game both ways,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “When you get to that latter part of the game, we have to do a better job of forcing the other team to beat us — as opposed to self-inflicted wounds.”

For all of their talented young hitters and good clubhouse vibes, the Cubs weren’t built as a defense-first team and that farm system hasn’t produced enough impact pitchers yet to diversify the bullpen.

The Pirates didn’t play a perfect game, but they quickly capitalized when Justin Grimm gave up a leadoff walk to Pedro Alvarez in the eighth inning.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein’s ideas about fixing the wild-card format]

Pinch-runner Pedro Florimon stole second base and hustled to third when Miguel Montero’s throw bounced past Starlin Castro into center field. That went down as an error for the veteran catcher and Florimon scored the go-ahead run on Starling Marte’s sacrifice fly.

“I’m beating myself,” Grimm said. “The other teams aren’t beating me. I’m beating myself.”

Just like that, the Cubs wasted the four runs they manufactured against Gerrit Cole, the stud right-hander lined up for the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7 (unless the Pirates catch the St. Louis Cardinals).

The Cubs have built a relentless American League-style lineup that will keep gathering intelligence on Cole, the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in the 2011 draft. Cole pitched into the seventh inning before turning the game over to Joakim Soria, who threw two wild pitches, allowing Castro and Tommy La Stella to score the game-tying runs.

[MORE CUBS: Long-term deal for Theo Epstein can wait with Cubs in playoff race]

But the Cubs know that power pitching plays in October, and they have question marks at the back of the rotation beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, not to mention a bullpen that’s been trying to cover up for those issues pretty much all season.

Jason Hammel appeared to be in trouble from the start, walking two batters and hitting another in a three-run first inning. Hammel walked off the mound with two outs in the fourth and the Cubs already trailing 4-1, not the way to begin a doubleheader against a team that’s 30 games over .500.

“Pretty embarrassing,” Hammel said. “It pisses me off. I’m a starter – set the tone – and I haven’t done it in awhile. I got to figure it out.

“What I’m doing right now isn’t acceptable. So I got to get to work and we’re running out of time. I take a lot of pride in my work and right now it’s not translating.

“Outstanding job with the guys to bounce back and make a game of it. But they’ve been doing that too often. I need to start pulling my own weight here.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs built up enough of a cushion that they shouldn’t collapse down the stretch. But there will be nowhere to hide in a one-game playoff.

Grimm (3-5, 2.22 ERA) has been such a huge piece to this bullpen, a reason why the Cubs are positioned for the playoffs. But there’s always a price to be paid. The line from his last 10 appearances: 8.1 innings, 12 runs (6 earned), 8 hits, 8 walks.

“I just got to find my confidence and get my aggressiveness back,” Grimm said. “Right now, I’m just trying to finish out strong and then worry about October in October.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.