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."

Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

After two seasons alternating table setters atop their lineup, the Cubs may finally have found a consistent leadoff hitter in Kyle Schwarber.

“It’s one of those things you have to believe it to see it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s game against the Reds. “And sometimes there’s other folks that have to see it to believe it. I just thought it was the right time.”

Schwarber started his 11th-straight game on Friday, hitting leadoff in the last nine games of that stretch. Unlike his abysmal tenure leading off in 2017, though, Schwarber is getting into a groove hitting first for the Cubs this season.

In 2017, Schwarber hit leadoff 37 times; not only did he slash a woeful .190/.312/.381 with seven home runs, but he walked 24 times compared to 48 strikeouts. The Cubs went with a leadoff-man by committee approach the rest of the season, as 10 other players hit leadoff at least once.

Schwarber has flipped the script as a leadoff hitter this season. Although the sample size is small, he’s slashing .265/.372/.618, (34 at-bats) with three home runs and seven walks compared to 12 strikeouts.

“Again, I liked it back then, I did. However, he did not react to it well in that moment,” Maddon said. “But if you look at his overall abilities as they stand right now, for me, that’s the perfect spot for him, especially in our lineup.

“He’s made some adjustments recently, he’s more mature as a hitter, he’s understanding it better. All of those things are involved. I like it; I could’ve done it earlier this year, but he really wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now earlier this year.

“I think this last three weeks or so, he’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be.”

Schwarber certainly has been trending upwards since the calendar flipped to May. In April, he slashed .211/.282/.338 with 25 strikeouts and seven walks. While he’s hitting .224 this month, he holds a stellar .389 OBP (.837 OPS), walking 19 times compared to 21 strikeouts.

“There’s things that he’s doing right now that are permitting him to be more consistent,” Maddon said. “Like the other day, that first at-bat walk against [Max] Scherzer in what was such a big at-bat. There was like four pitches all over the place and he didn’t swing.”

Schwarber walked in both of his at-bats against Scherzer on May 17 on a combined 10 pitches. He took four pitches out of the zone the first time around and four more the second at-bat. On the latter instance, the only strikes came on foul balls.

All of this is not to say that the days of Schwarber hitting for power are over. He has four home runs in May, three of which have come in the leadoff spot. And while RBI chances aren’t as prevalent for leadoff hitters, Maddon mentioned how Schwarber has room to grow.

“To this point, he hasn’t really been the RBI guy that you might envision. He’s been more the table setter,” he said. “I think as he learns his craft better, of course he can drive in runs more consistently.

"He’s on the verge of doing that right now. The benefit has been for him to set the table more than cleaning it up to this point, but I think he has the abilities to do both.”

Following the Cubs’ 6-5 loss to the Reds on Friday, Maddon reiterated his confidence in his latest No. 1 hitter. Schwarber went 1-for-4 with a home run, a walk and a strikeout.

“I like his at-bats right now in general,” he said. “That’s kind of why I did what I did, because I think that it’s become a more mature at-bat and the more the stays up there, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”

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The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”