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 and through the NBC Sports App.

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants