Cubs collapse in ninth, drop series opener to Yankees

Cubs collapse in ninth, drop series opener to Yankees

The Cubs were battling the wind and the New York Yankees on Friday. For most of the game, it was going their way, but one swing changed the outcome.

A late two-out, three-run homer by Brett Gardner off Hector Rondon in the ninth inning propelled the New York Yankees to a 3-2 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field in the series opener. The Cubs' win probability prior to his home run was 92.7, according to Fan Graphs.

Kyle Hendricks, Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop pitched eight scoreless innings leading up to the ninth.

With closer Wade Davis having pitched in three straight games, Rondon came on for the save up two runs, but Gardner’s three-run dinger gave the Yankees the lead and the win.

Entering Friday, Rondon had been solid all season. He only allowed two earned runs in 12 games. The Cubs bullpen also had an era of 2.76, which led the National League.

“We were short in the bullpen,” said manager Joe Maddon. “That was his game this afternoon. From the side it looked like he had really good stuff, I mean really, unfortunate choice of where he threw it on that pitch. That’s probably the only pitch that Gardner could’ve hit out and we gave it to him, and that happens."

Gardner said the pitch he connected with was a hanging slider down and in.

"I felt pretty good about it, but I was unsure," Garnder said. "The lower you hit it, the better chance it’s got of cutting through the wind. Yeah I felt pretty good about it. I just wasn’t sure. It just felt good to see it go out."

The Cubs had a prime chance to score in the bottom of the ninth inning. Addison Russell reached second base on a fielding error to lead it off, but the Cubs couldn't bring him home. Aroldis Chapman, who was presented his championship ring prior to first pitch, closed out the game for New York.

Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber provided the Cubs with their only offense of the day. Bryant hit his sixth homer of the season in the first inning while Schwarber sent out his fifth in the sixth.

Hendricks didn’t have his best stuff either, but he certainly did his part. The Cubs right-hander pitched 5.1 shutout innings and recorded three strikeouts. He allowed six hits and two walks on 94 pitches.

“He’s looking the same over the last couple outings in a good way,” said manager Joe Maddon. “There’s nothing better, nothing worse. He’s looking pretty good. I still think there’s another level there left, but no, I’m very pleased.”

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.