Cubs

For Cubs, closing the gap on Cardinals is easier said than done

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For Cubs, closing the gap on Cardinals is easier said than done

ST. LOUIS – Tired of hearing about The Cardinal Way yet?

This measuring-stick series ended with the Cubs leaving Busch Stadium on Thursday afternoon after a 5-1 loss that again showed the gap between these two rivals. At the same time, it also didn’t feel like so many other trips to St. Louis where the Cubs appeared to be years and years away from seriously challenging the 11-time World Series champions.

“They got my respect,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But it’s about us. It’s not about them. We have to take care of our own house. We have to create our own culture. We have to create our methods where people are going to start talking about us exactly the same way they talk about them.

“It’s not easy to do. They’ve been doing it for awhile. But I know it can be done.”

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The talking points in the visiting clubhouse revolved around how close the Cubs came to winning three of the four games here. That didn’t exactly match all the chest-pounding rhetoric from those winning-the-offseason press conferences and the carefree days in spring training.    

“I don’t think there’s any gap,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “I think we compete.”

No doubt, the Cubs (14-13) are a much more entertaining team, even if they didn’t have an answer for John Lackey, who walked off the mound in the eighth inning to a standing ovation from the crowd of 44,472 after allowing only one run on five hits while striking out 10.   

But in losing three of these four games, Jon Lester became the only starter who could last through the sixth inning, and the Cubs had to rebuild their bullpen on the fly after too many midgame collapses.

The Cubs committed five errors in the last three games – not including Starlin Castro’s synchronized throwing program – against a team that absolutely preys upon mistakes.

The Cubs also struck out 41 times, with Maddon blasting home-plate umpire D.J. Reyburn on Wednesday night, complaining about a perceived double standard, sticking up for rookies like Kris Bryant (zero homers in 19 games).

“The gap is repetition,” Maddon said. “They outcompete us experience-wise. That’s it. And we will make that up.”

Jake Arrieta (3-3, 3.41 ERA) couldn’t build off Lester’s start, getting burned by Lackey’s two-out, two-run double down the right-field line in the fourth inning and some overall shaky defense.  

“We got to be better all the way around,” said Arrieta, who gave up five runs, four earned, in 5.1 innings. “There are things we can clean up everywhere.”

St. Louis (21-7) already set a record for the best start in franchise history and enjoys a 6.5-game lead over the Cubs in the division. Lester correctly pointed out that it’s only May and it’s not like the Cardinals are kicking their butts.

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There are 135 games to go and players like Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell should be on the upswing when the Cubs return to St. Louis in late June.     

“We play them enough,” Arrieta said. “We’ll be able to return the favor. We just need to be ready next time.”  

After the game, Maddon lightened the mood by blasting polka music outside his office, getting ready for this weekend’s trip to Milwaukee.  

“I’m not conceding anything here,” Maddon said. “It’s a long year, folks.”

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: