Cubs

Wacky inning spoils Jon Lester's stellar start, pits Cubs on wrong end of sweep

Wacky inning spoils Jon Lester's stellar start, pits Cubs on wrong end of sweep

Jon Lester has allowed all of two runs in 18 innings to start the season and yet he's still searching for his first win pitching in front of the best defense in the league and a high-powered offense.

The Cubs bullpen struggled for the second straight day and some tough bounces went Pittsburgh's way as the Pirates completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field with a 6-1 win Sunday afternoon.

Lester and Jameson Taillon matched zeros through 6.5 innings before the Cubs pushed a run across when pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella doubled off the glove of Pirates left fielder Adam Frazier.

But the Pirates came right back against Koji Uehara in an ugly and wild eighth inning that saw three runs cross home plate.

Uehara didn't record an out, surrendering one run on a walk, double, walk and bloop single before Joe Maddon jogged out of the dugout to retrieve him.

Hector Rondon came on in search of a Houdini act and at first, it looked like he was up to the task, getting Starling Marte to ground out to Javy Baez, who made a nice pick and throw home to get the lead runner.

Anthony Rizzo followed with a barehanded pickup a few pitches later but his throw carried Willson Contreras off home plate. The next hitter, David Freese, flew out to right field but Jason Heyward's throw home skipped up the third base line and off Contreras, allowing the third run to score.

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Uehara was charged with three runs - two earned. It is the first time he's allowed a run since July 9, 2016 - a span of 20 innings - which served as the longest streak in the majors among relievers.

The Pirates added on in the ninth off Justin Grimm on Adam Frazier's three-run homer. It was only the sixth professional homer for Frazier in 434 games.

Lester's start was spoiled again as he went seven shutout innings allowing just three hits and two walks compared to three strikeouts. Contreras helped his starter out by gunning down three Pirates on the basepaths, including a classic David Ross-esque back-pick at first base to nab Freese in the seventh.

"They've been working really well," Maddon said of the new pitcher-catcher duo. "From my perspective, Jonny's really taken control of the situation. Willson called the pitch that got a first pitch out of [Andrew] McCutchen and immediately, Jonny acknowledged Willson coming to the dugout based on the call of the pitch.

"So they're really getting into that method right now. I know Willy's really grinding it out. He's really trying to be everything to all the pitchers. He'll settle down; he'll settle into it; he'll get into his groove. When he starts hitting, heads up. It's gonna get even better behind the plate. I thought he did a really good job with [Lester]."

Lester now has a 1.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP on the season through his first three starts, picking up right where he left off after a 2.02 ERA in 35.2 postseason innings last fall.

The sweep is a tough pill for the Cubs to swallow as it sends them back to .500 overall (6-6) on the season. Meanwhile, the Pirates - who had dropped four straight entering the weekend series at Wrigley - climbed to 6-6 as well.

In the final two games of the series, the Cubs bullpen allowed 11 runs in 5.1 innings.

"Two days in a row, we just gotta do a better job in the latter part of the game protecting leads," Maddon said. "That's all...

"We did not get the [big] hit. I totally agree with that. That's been more of our problem than anything — not getting that clutch hit and not holding a lead in the latter part of the game."

The Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers into Wrigley Field Monday night for a three-game series that will be preceded by a mini World Series ring ceremony for Travis Wood, Jason Hammel and Jorge Soler. 

Monday's game will be aired on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. and you can also stream the game on CSNChicago.com and through the NBC Sports App.

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

Monday’s interview with Jim Hickey in Chicago — roughly 72 hours after the Cubs fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and within a week of manager Joe Maddon saying “of course” he wanted his entire staff back — is a first step in the reboot at Wrigley Field.

Maddon would probably like to have that answer back, knowing he could have softened the language with corporate speak and created some wiggle room in the middle of a National League Championship Series where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game.

But Hickey, the former Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach, is a familiar face and an expert voice at a time when Maddon’s honeymoon period appears to be over, repeatedly first- and second-guessed about his decisions, from the World Series Game 7 the Cubs won last year through a frustrating 43-45 start to this season and deep into another playoff run.

That staff is already in flux, with bench coach Dave Martinez scheduled to interview with the Washington Nationals for Dusty Baker’s old job and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske now leaving to take a lead role with the Los Angeles Angels hitters.

Here’s why the Cubs will probably have to make Hickey an offer he can’t refuse:

— A rival scout noticed how often Maddon looked like a solitary figure in the dugout, standing there looking down at his lineup card. Whatever friction Maddon felt with Bosio — a big presence who pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what he thinks — Hickey is someone the manager trusts after their eight seasons together with the Rays.

Maddon insisted he wasn’t maneuvering behind the scenes when he reached out after Hickey surprisingly parted ways with Tampa Bay in October, but it still showed the depth of their relationship: “I called him to console a friend.”

— While working for the Boston Red Sox, Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got an up-close look at what Hickey did in the American League East, helping build the small-market contender that advanced to the 2008 World Series, the beginning of five seasons with at least 90 wins in six years.

Between his time with the Rays and Houston Astros, look at the All-Star pitchers Hickey has worked with: Chris Archer, David Price, Alex Colome, Brad Boxberger, Matt Moore, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Scott Kazmir, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and Roger Clemens.

— Hickey can also offer unique insight into Alex Cobb, a free agent the Cubs will have to do more background work on as they try to replace 40 percent of their rotation. Cobb — who went 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in 115 career starts for the Rays — just turned 30 and has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the middle of the 2015 season.

“He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly,” Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times after Hickey left the Rays with a year remaining on his contract. “He will have a great time being a free agent.

“I’m not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is. There’s really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better.”

— Beyond the connection to Maddon, Hickey is someone who knows Chicago after growing up on the South Side, and that hometown draw will probably matter at a time when the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are among several marquee teams in the market for a new pitching coach that now might be thinking: "Better Call Boz."

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”