Cubs begin title defense with walk-off loss in St. Louis

Cubs begin title defense with walk-off loss in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – The brave new world of Cubs baseball began at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday at Busch Stadium in front of a sellout crowd and a national TV audience. It had been 16,945 games since the Cubs opened a season as defending World Series champions, back when the 1909 team beat the St. Louis Cardinals at the West Side Grounds without "The World's Greatest Leader" or "Bryzzo Souvenir Co." or a $155 million pitcher.

How do you top last year? Well, the Cubs are off to another head-spinning, get-me-rewrite start, with the added cinematic touches of rain falling in the eighth and ninth innings. Nothing here will compare to Game 7 drama, but the Cubs and Cardinals will play 18 more times this season, and that should be very entertaining.

"We're not going to go undefeated this year," Jon Lester said after a 4-3 walk-off loss, in a visiting clubhouse where the Cubs shrugged it off and played their music.

Fireworks exploded after Randal Grichuk – a young player the Cardinals expect to take a leap forward this year – delivered in a bases-loaded situation and lined a Mike Montgomery pitch off the base of the left-center field fence. Grichuk had already slammed Pedro Strop's 96-mph fastball into the right-field bullpen for a two-run homer and a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning.

Not that St. Louis necessarily has an inferiority complex, because the Cardinals love their Opening Night pageantry and the Budweiser Clydesdales parading around the stadium. But a red mat around home plate did conspicuously salute the "11-TIME WORLD CHAMPIONS."

A celebration of the 125th season of Cardinal baseball featured actual trophies and Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith and Tony La Russa in red blazers for a pregame ceremony. The 2017 Cardinals rode in pickup trucks around the warning track. A moment of silence for St. Louis legend Chuck Berry preceded his daughter singing the national anthem.

Nine innings doesn't prove that the Cardinals have closed last year's 17.5-game gap in the National League Central or reveal something about the 2017 Cubs or say much about the state of this rivalry. But this is all we have to go on.

"The page has been turned," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "This is a new journey, a new group."

[RELATED: Cubs will pay respects to Dexter Fowler at Wrigley Field]

Playoff legend Kyle Schwarber doesn't really do regular seasons. He didn't get his first hit last year until having reconstructive knee surgery, going through a grueling rehab process and then putting up a .971 OPS in the World Series.

As the new leadoff guy, Schwarber singled, doubled and got hit by a pitch, but the Cardinals weren't intimidated. Looking like the next great St. Louis pitcher, Carlos Martinez unleashed 100-mph heat, putting together 7.1 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts against zero walks, a reminder that the Cubs will get everyone’s best shot this season.

"We were picked by everyone under the sun to win last year, too," team president Theo Epstein said. "So I know it's not good for storylines, but this group of guys needs like no motivation. They need no maintenance or management. They're such self-starters. They're totally connected, really selfless, hungry to win. We're lucky to have this group of guys. They run themselves and they want it bad.

"They put a ton of work in during the offseason. It was a great spring training. They're going to do all the little things to get the most out of their ability as a team – emphasis on team – and we're just lucky to be here while this is going on.

"We don't need an us-against-them thing. We don't need to feel slighted. They love to compete, so look forward to doing that 162 times, hopefully more."

Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and his bases-loaded flyball off Seung Swan Oh in the eighth inning didn't soar deep enough to score a run. The Cubs saw zeroes all over the scoreboard until Willson Contreras hammered Oh's slider 414 feet into the left-field seats for a game-tying, three-run homer in the ninth inning.

During last year's playoffs, the Cubs learned firsthand about the elements of chance and randomness, the value of a few inches here or there. That helped the Cardinals score their first run in the third inning, when highlight-reel second baseman Javier Baez lost a ball in a white rotating advertisement behind home plate. Instead of scooping up that Aledmys Diaz hard-hit ball and turning a double play, ex-Cub Dexter Fowler kept running to third base and would score on Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly.

"I'm not afraid to make mistakes, and when I make them, there's no excuses," Baez said. "But I didn't see the ball at all until it passed the mound. I realized it was the sign, because he was getting out of the box and I still couldn't see the ball. And it was only for us playing defense.

"No excuses, but I just couldn't see the ball like that."

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching


That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.