Though he’s still mighty confident his squad is good enough to make the postseason, the Cubs’ defense has been one of Joe Maddon’s biggest frustrations through two months and change of his first season on the North Side.
Friday, those troubles in the field hurt the Cubs in a 5-4 extra-inning loss to the visiting Reds at Wrigley Field.
Addison Russell’s first-inning error opened the gates to begin an uncharacteristic performance from Jason Hammel, who’s shone at nearly every turn so far this season. Friday, he wasn’t on his A-game, and Russell’s error didn’t help.
The rookie second baseman botched a ground ball, allowing Skip Schumaker to reach to lead off the game. Two RBI doubles off the bats of Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Todd Frazier followed, and a Brayan Pena RBI single made it a three-run first for the visitors. Two of those runs, though, were unearned.
Later, with the game tied at 4 in the top of the 10th, Kris Bryant booted a grounder at third, allowing Frazier to reach base to lead off that pivotal frame. Three hitters later, a Eugenio Suarez basehit through a drawn-in Cubs infield brought home Frazier, the go-ahead and game-winning run.
Despite their importance — three of the Reds’ five runs Friday were unearned — Maddon didn’t think the errors by his rookie infielders were too much to be upset about.
“That’s the kind of stuff that our guys are going to start making more routinely,” Maddon said. “If anything, if you look at our errors on defense this year, it’s been more of that kind of a play than a more difficult play. And I think as our guys start to gain more experience, you’re going to start to see that stuff go away.
“I can’t be happier with our group right now. I’m not even a moment of being upset.”
Part of his lack of concern likely dealt with the fact that the Cubs kept exhibiting their 2015 tendency of never saying die.
Just one inning after Cincinnati’s three-run first, the North Siders plated a pair of runs to answer. And it was the two most responsible for the Reds’ early outburst who made amends: Hammel and Russell each came up with run-scoring hits, Hammel chugging around the bases to score from first on a Russell RBI double.
Three innings later — after Frazier’s solo blast made it a 4-2 Reds lead — Starlin Castro delivered a clutch two-run, game-tying home run off Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who had settled into a pretty impressive groove following the Cubs’ two-run second. Cueto retired 10 of 11 before Bryant led off the bottom of the sixth with a single and Castro went yard two batters later to tie the game.
“That’s what we’ve been doing since Day 1 of spring training: never quit,” Hammel said. “There are 27 outs in a baseball game. If you’re mailing it in after five innings, you shouldn’t even play nine. Why are we even here? It’s our job to continue to play. The game can go both ways in a nine-inning ballgame, so you never know what you’re going to get. As long as we’re out there playing hard and continuing to put good at-bats together, which we have been doing, we’ve still got a shot to win.”
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The Cubs had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth — credit Jay Bruce’s amazing diving catch on Jonathan Herrera’s drive to right-center field for keeping the Cubs from celebrating a regulation walk-off — but problems both expected and unexpected proved the difference.
The fielding issues have started to become a norm for the Cubs, who are second only to the Brewers when it comes to errors committed by National League teams. Friday’s miscue was Russell’s eighth, the most among NL second basemen. Bryant’s error was also his eighth, tied with the Pirates’ Josh Harrison for the most among NL third basemen.
But Hammel’s struggles were less predictable. He’s turned in an All-Star type of season so far, and he came into Friday’s start on a real hot streak. In eight starts prior, he had a 2.03 ERA and had struck out 60 hitters over 57 2/3 innings. Friday, his five innings of work and four strikeouts matched season lows.
“Just fighting myself,” Hammel said. “Just basically out of sync today. I wasn’t on top of the baseball like I have been, and it cost me a lot of deep counts. Basically, I battled for five innings. The fact that we still had a chance to still be in it and win when I left, it was nice because it could have been a lot worse.
“Especially with Cueto on the mound, you can’t spot a team like that three runs early and expect to come out and make it an easy one.”
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But, much like the fielding troubles, Maddon wasn’t concerned about Hammel. Heck, he did only give up two earned runs.
“He just wasn’t on top of his game today,” Maddon said. “That happens to every good starting pitcher. I’m not at all concerned. I though he battled through it well, gave us a chance.”
The Cubs did get a terrific performance from the bullpen. A quartet of relievers pitched four scoreless innings after Hammel’s departure. Zac Rosscup, James Russell, Jason Motte and Pedro Strop retired 12 of the 13 batters they faced without allowing a hit. Hector Rondon pitched the 10th, surrendering the game-winning run, though it wasn’t earned.
So while the young Cubs are learning to win, there’s perhaps another lesson in this season of change: Don’t get too down about losses like these.
“Here’s my takeaway walking up the tunnel: If we play that game every night, I’ll accept that. You’re talking about effort and want to and all the other stuff you’re looking for, the will to win,” Maddon said. “That’s going to happen, you’re going to make mistakes. But if we play that game often enough this year, we’re going to definitely get ourselves in the playoffs.”