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."

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

The Cubs signed catcher José Lobatón to a minor league deal on Tuesday with an invitation to Summer Camp, per the club's transactions page.

Lobatón is a career .215/.293/.319 hitter and known more for his work behind the plate. He last played in the majors with the Mets in 2018, spending 2019 in Triple-A with the Mariners and Dodgers. He's also previously played for the Padres (2009), Rays (2011-13) and Nationals (2014-17).

Lobatón gives the Cubs veteran catching depth in the unique 2020 season. Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini are one of baseball's best 1-2 punches, and Josh Phegley could secure a spot on the club's initial 30-man roster, which must then be cut to 28 players after two weeks and 26 two weeks after that.

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The club hasn't announced if Lobatón will join the Wrigley Field training group or head to the alternate site in South Bend.


How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

Maybe this is as good as baseball’s coronavirus testing gets.

Players, managers, coaches and staff want better, and many say they expect continued improvement.

But with a week left before teams start leaving individual bubbles to travel for games, this may be where tests of faith start to fill the gaps in testing for the virus.

And that means players might have decisions to make all over again. It already means teams have been troubleshooting how scenarios that played out at Wrigley Field twice this week might be managed during games days.

“I think some more players will opt out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Wednesday after the Cubs held out six players from workouts as a precaution over “pending” results from Monday’s test.

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That could be an immediate cost. Thirteen players already have declined to accept the health risk and play this season, including Giants star Buster Posey and former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez.

Angels superstar Mike Trout and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish are among several others who have said they haven’t ruled out joining the 13, depending how safe things look as the game inches closer to a 60-game season to be played in the 30 home ballparks — many of which are located in COVID-19 hot spots.

The Cubs got word late Wednesday that none of the players they held out of practice had tested positive. But it’s at least the fourth time in six rounds of testing that results have been delayed or inconclusive enough to force the Cubs to reschedule workouts or hold out players and staff — and came two days after manager David Ross was among the group to miss workouts.

“There’s definitely a level of fire drill some mornings,” Ross said.

And this is where the teams have their work cut out, regardless of how strong their numbers remain when the season starts.

“This will present a problem if it happens within the season, and we’ll have to adjust,” Ross said. “But I think they’re working through that so we don’t have these problems when the season starts. … This is all new.”

But it’s also not likely to go away anytime soon, and almost certainly not by next week's openers — at least not as dramatically as players and other team officials would like to see.

MLB is using labs in Utah and New Jersey to turn around thousands of coronavirus tests every other day, which is subject to occasional issues involving a stressed national shipping industry when it comes to getting the samples to the labs and occasional batches that require quick retests because of inclusive results — or in some cases a positive result within a given batch.

RELATED: What the Cubs' Summer Camp testing delays mean for the regular season

The vast majority of delayed and retested samples produce negative results — as in the case of the Cubs’ half dozen on Wednesday. And MLB’s positive rate overall is about 1 percent.

Based on conversations with baseball people, not every team is approaching its “pending” cases with the same level of “abundance of caution” as the Cubs seem to be taking. Other teams are using case-by-case approaches or waiting until specifically positive results (or symptoms/risk behavior) to restrict activities.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cubs remain the only team in the league without a known positive test among its players and coaching staff since intake testing began more than two weeks ago.

But what happens when the season starts, and a day like Monday or Wednesday comes up again — whether for the Cubs or an opponent?

“If we’re on a getaway day and Jon Lester’s our starter and has a pending test, it’s going to be hard for us to scramble,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure they’re working on it right now already to make sure that on Opening Day everything’s running as smooth as possible.”

But MLB does not appear to be in position to increase its testing capacity or delivery speed within the next week — especially when much of the country is experiencing surges in cases of COVID-19, positive rates and testing shortages.

One potential mitigating factor might be the fact that 48 of the Cubs’ 60 games (80 percent) are night games and two more are late-afternoon games. In theory, night games Monday and Wednesday of this week would have meant enough time in both cases to clear the “pending” results in time for the players in question to have played.

It may be small consolation to some.

“We didn’t sign up for these bad protocols as far as testing,” said Rizzo, whose Opening Day might already be in doubt as he battles a back issue. “The biggest thing for us is the safety.”

Neither he nor Ross are pointing fingers at MLB or the labs. They, along with other players and team officials, keep saying they expect the testing process to get even better.

But there may not be any specific reason to believe it will. And you can bank on roster rules staying where they are (nobody’s adding the kind of daily flexibility that would be certain to be abused — and would add to payroll costs).

So keep an eye on Mike Trout and Yu Darvish — and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Braun and everybody else who remains on edge about the risk this pandemic season poses?

“Listen, we are in a pandemic. We are all at risk,” Rizzo said. “We all want to play baseball because that’s what we love to do, and we have an opportunity to bring joy to a lot of people that are home, through these tough times.

“But we are all human. If guys start testing positive left and right and this gets out of control, I’m sure you’ll see some guys opt out.”