Cubs make All-Star splash after sloppy loss to Reds

Cubs make All-Star splash after sloppy loss to Reds

The Cubs played a sloppy game leading up to the All-Star selection show they dominated on Tuesday night, falling into a five-run hole by the third inning against a last-place Cincinnati Reds team tanking for the future.

So much of the conversation about the Cubs on talk shows and Twitter revolves around sheer panic or nothing-to-see-here scolding when you point out a flaw. Maybe that’s simply the nature of social media and this franchise’s history. But after an ugly 9-5 loss, a young, talented, banged-up group with seven All-Stars exists somewhere in between those two extremes in the middle of a 162-game season. 

With Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, the Cubs can now be the first team since the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals to have their entire infield starting the All-Star Game. Add outfielder Dexter Fowler – also voted in through the fan ballot – and the Cubs are the first team since the 1985 San Diego Padres to have five players named to start the All-Star Game. 

Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta – voted in by the players – could throw the first pitch with all the flashbulbs popping in front of an international TV audience. New York Mets manager Terry Collins also added Jon Lester to the National League pitching staff. 

The Cubs (52-31) have the hot start that generated all this All-Star buzz, creating what's now almost a double-digit cushion in the division. The infrastructure is there for what should be a very bright future. 

But this has still been a meh stretch, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals and Miami Marlins since the middle of June and getting swept by the Mets over the weekend in New York, where it felt like last year’s NL Championship Series all over again.   

Veteran pitcher John Lackey didn’t bring his “Big Boy Game” this time, zoning out on a David Ross passed ball, throwing his hands over his head in frustration and reacting too slow to cover home plate in the first inning, allowing Reds speedster Billy Hamilton to score from second base.      

Manager Joe Maddon flipped out in the second inning, got ejected for arguing “egregious” balls and strikes with home plate umpire Jerry Meals in the middle of a Ross at-bat and spent his afternoon working out, taking a steam bath and eating some raisin bread with butter.

A shaky defense also committed two errors, an inconsistent offense hit four homers but went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and Lackey gave up six runs on six hits and five walks in six innings.

Yes, Lackey felt squeezed: “It happens. Guys miss calls. I miss pitches. Nobody’s perfect out there. But the problem you run into is when guys are just adamant and not wanting to admit they could have missed it. We’re all men out here.”

A crowd of 41,310 started booing and heading toward the exits after Cincinnati trade chip Jay Bruce launched a Pedro Strop slider out toward the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer in the ninth inning.

The Cubs are 18-3 against the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates – and 34-28 versus the rest of their schedule so far – and don’t look quite as invincible anymore. Some of this is natural regression, and some of it is the 24-games-in-24-days-stretch before the All-Star break. The lineup also clearly misses Fowler as a catalyst at the top of the order while he recovers from a strained hamstring (though if the Cubs realized he was that important, they probably would have signed him before late February).  

Will you actually play in the All-Star Game?

“That’s the plan,” said Fowler, who earned his first All-Star selection with a .398 on-base percentage. “We’ll see. I’m getting pretty close, definitely getting better. Use that as an extra rehab game.”

[SHOP: Buy Cubs All-Star Game jerseys & hats]

The Cubs hope to get healthy and find some reinforcements by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, but the biggest reasons for optimism in the second half will be all over Petco Park during next week’s All-Star festivities in San Diego. 

“It means a lot,” Maddon said. “First of all, individually, what it does for your own personal self-esteem is very valuable. There’s a lot of fan acceptance, obviously. Within that, there’s some peer acceptance. Within the industry and within the game you’ve wanted to play since you’re a kid, you’re an All-Star, man. That’s pretty sweet stuff. 

“Organizationally, it just speaks to what’s been done here the last several years. (And) I take zero credit for that. It’s just great scouting and development on the part of the Cubs, great leadership in the front office and ownership, because, really, you’re not successful unless you have all of that in place. It just doesn’t happen.

“No sports group’s going to be successful without tremendous leadership at the top. It filters down to the field. And then you got a bunch of guys that are skillful, accountable, authentic human beings. Everybody that made this team is very deserving.”

Or, as Lackey said in the middle of a season that will ultimately be judged on whether or not he gets a third World Series ring: “Good for them.”

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

No matter how much people complain and Tweet, Joe Maddon will never go with a set lineup every game.

But that doesn't mean he won't let certain spots in the lineup settle in for a couple weeks in a row.

That's what may be occuring right now with Anthony Rizzo holding serve as the "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" once again.

Rizzo made his 5th straight start atop the Cubs order Friday after collecting a pair of doubles and a walk in Thursday's 9-6 victory.

Initially, moving Rizzo from the heart of the order to the top was in part to help the Cubs first baseman get going. Maddon is a big fan of hitting guys leadoff to help them reset mentally and find their stroke again.

But it is working — Rizzo entered play Friday 8-for-16 with 5 doubles, 3 walks, 3 runs and 3 RBI in the leadoff spot over the last week. The promptly reached on a hit-by-pitch and walk his first two times up Friday.

He's also been the team's biggest cheerleader:

So how long will Maddon keep this unconventional lineup?

"I don't know," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "I don't know. He came up again in crucial moments [Thursday]. He looks really good out there. I don't know. That's my exact answer."

Yes, Rizzo is looking good in the leadoff spot, but his insertion atop the order has given the Cubs lineup a new dynamic. 

With Rizzo first and Kris Bryant second, the guys that are historically the Cubs' top two run producers are hitting atop the order and "behind" the pitcher's spot. 

But they're also the Cubs' top two on-base guys and Maddon is liking the look of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — two high-contact guys — following Bryzzo in the order, as they have done recently. (It doesn't hurt to have the NL leader in RBI — Javy Baez — hitting cleanup, either.)

"It's almost a backwards way of doing this right now that I'm finding fascinating," Maddon said. "So I'm just gonna let it play for just a little bit and see where it takes us."

It's taken the Cubs on a 4-game winning streak endcapping the All-Star Break, though the Cardinals got up big early Friday afternoon.

For a team that leads the NL in just about every important offensive category, it's going to be a huge key moving forward if Rizzo gets going on a consistent basis in the second half.

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."