Cubs

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

Bryce Harper reaches seven times but does little damage, just like Cubs planned

The Cubs put the reigning National League MVP on base seven times Sunday. But they weren’t going to let him beat them.

Bryce Harper walked an incredible six times during Sunday’s game, three of those intentional passes and two of those loading the bases. But with all the time Harper spent at first base, he touched home plate just once.

So the Cubs’ bold strategy — one that harkened back to the days when teams would do anything to take the bat out of Barry Bonds’ hands — worked like a charm. The Nationals scored just three times during Sunday's 13-inning marathon, a 4-3 Cubs win, a number that would’ve almost certainly been higher had Harper been allowed to put his bat on the ball.

“You know how good he is, and why tempt fate right there?” manager Joe Maddon said. “Now if the other guy gets you, that’s fine, you have no problem with that whatsoever. I know he’s not been as hot as he can be coming into this series, but you don’t want to get him hot. I’ve been part of that in the past. So we did what we thought we had to do today, and it happened to work.”

Harper walked in his first two plate appearances, motoring around from first on Ryan Zimmerman’s double off Kris Bryant’s glove at third base in the third inning. But that was the last time Harper’s incredible skill would hurt the home team.

After Jake Arrieta loaded the bases with two hits and an error to start the fourth, he got two consecutive outs resulting in just one run. But with two runners still in scoring position, the Cubs elected to give Harper first base with four intentional balls. Zimmerman struck out to end the inning in the ensuing at-bat.

After Harper was hit by a pitch in the sixth to reach first for the fourth time — again resulting in no scoreboard damage — and walked harmlessly in the eighth, the Cubs again intentionally walked him to load the bases with two outs in the 10th. Zimmerman flew out to right field to end that inning.

Once more, with two down in the 12th, the Cubs gave Harper an intentional free pass. That one came the closest to biting them, as Zimmerman tapped a grounder to third that required a nice pick and a rocket throw from Javier Baez to barely nab a sliding Zimmerman at first and end the inning. Perhaps the outcome had been different had the Nationals not exhausted their challenges earlier in the game.

But all in all, it was a winning strategy, arguably the difference in a game where any one run would’ve changed the result.

“It’s part of our job. Maybe there’s going to be a guy in their lineup and maybe we don’t like the matchup, we’d rather pitch to the guy that’s on deck,” Arrieta said. “We have faith in all our guys here. It showed today the way they all threw out of the ‘pen, really picked us up.”

Harper walked a ridiculous 13 times in the weekend’s four-game series, a sign of his terrific on-base abilities as much as the Cubs’ decision to take the bat out of his hands. But with all those trots down to first base, Harper didn’t do much damage. He had just one hit, scored three runs and drove in only one.

Considering Harper led the NL with 42 homers and 118 runs scored last season and led all of baseball with a .649 slugging percentage, it looks like the Cubs’ made the right move.

“It’s something we go over before each series, the guys that we’re not going to allow to beat us throughout a series. That’s kind of the situation that came up, and we handled it accordingly,” Arrieta said. “It worked out. 4-0 against them at home is something that we’ll take any day.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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