Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central


Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs have done a lot of talking but haven’t backed it up yet.

Of course, there is plenty of time to live up to the Bloomberg Businessweek cover — “a sports empire is in bloom” — with more than 80 percent of the schedule remaining and all this blue-chip talent waiting to mature. 

But after Sunday afternoon’s 11-inning walk-off loss to the worst team in baseball, the Cubs left Miller Park with a 15-15 record and no real sense of momentum.

The Cubs have now lost two series to the Milwaukee Brewers in early May — one before they fired their manager, one after — missing an opportunity to make a big statement in the National League Central. 

A 3-2 loss and another blown save left the Cubs with a negative run differential (-9) this season. A young lineup still getting used to split-second recognition at this level got shut down by ex-Cub Matt Garza and struck out 16 times overall. This team also woke up on Mother’s Day leading the league with 27 errors.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We’re a lot better than a .500 team, absolutely,” Kyle Hendricks said. “We know that. We’ve been losing some ballgames we shouldn’t have been losing and we’re all part of it. I am. The whole team’s part of it.

“That’s how baseball goes. You get in a tough patch, you got to get out of it. We know we can beat these teams. And we know we’re going to once we get rolling.”

With breakdowns across the board magnifying every move, even Joe Maddon sounded a little defensive during the manager’s postgame media session.

Hendricks, a feel pitcher without much margin for error, looked sharper this time, throwing 5.1 scoreless innings, though Maddon trusted him to throw only 85 pitches.    

“Before we took him out,” Maddon said, “(Elian) Herrera hit the ball hard, Garza hit the ball hard, (Carlos) Gomez hit the ball hard, (Scooter) Gennett hit the ball hard, (Ryan) Braun hit the ball hard, (Adam) Lind hit the ball hard…for those that are paying attention.”

[MORE: How Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse]

Justin Grimm finished the sixth inning cleanly, but Maddon got burned in the seventh with lefty Zac Rosscup, who gave up back-to-back homers to Martin Maldonado and Herrera, the seventh and eighth hitters who both began the day batting under .200.   

“I’m still 100 percent confident that we’re going to bounce back,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “Obviously, it’s part of the game. We’re going through a rough time. But with that being said, we got to make better pitches overall. That’s it.”

Montero – who homered off Garza in the sixth inning — understood why Maddon pinch-hit for him with a runner on third base in a tie game. Montero had gone 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in his career against Brewers lefty Will Smith, who struck out Matt Szczur to end the eighth.    

“I have no complaints about our group,” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better in certain areas. A lot of them, they’re frustrated, they don’t want to swing at the slider outside of the strike zone, either. They’ll stop doing that. Once we stop doing that, man, heads up.” 

After a 2-5 road trip through St. Louis and Milwaukee — and a 9-10 stretch within the division — it won’t get any easier.

Sections of the bleachers will finally reopen on Monday night as the New York Mets and their young power pitchers come into Wrigley Field for a four-game series that will test the franchise’s Big Bat Theory.

The first-place Mets will start with Jacob deGrom, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014. Noah Syndergaard, Baseball America’s No. 11 prospect heading into this season, will make his big-league debut on Tuesday. The next night, Matt Harvey, a 2013 All-Star Game starter, will face the young power hitters the Cubs have collected during their own slow, big-market rebuild.

The Cubs are hanging around, sensing an opportunity, but still waiting for everything to click. 

“You can be with a group of people (where) you know you might be at your limits,” Maddon said. “You might be at your Waterloo, in a sense: This is as good as we’re going to get. But I know that’s not the case with us, and that’s really the encouraging part of the whole thing.” 

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. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.