Cubs

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."

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.