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.