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Fielding woes prove costly as Cubs fall to Reds in extras

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Fielding woes prove costly as Cubs fall to Reds in extras

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.

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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.”

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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.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

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.”

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

With the second half of the season about to kick off Thursday afternoon, the Cubs front office is in the final stretch of roster building as the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline looms.

Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer spoke with NBC Sports Chicago's very own David Kaplan today on his ESPN 1000 radio show answering plenty of questions on what the Cubs' gameplan is before the trade deadline. 

There has already been a flurry of moves over the past few days, with two of the more enticing trade pieces being moved in new Dodger shortstop Manny Machado and former Padres reliever Brad Hand, who was traded to the Indians Thursday morning.

But when asked about going after big-name talent at the deadline, Hoyer explained while the team may "engage" in those conversations, the focus for him and the Cubs was on adding depth to the roster. 

"Obviously, we'll be involved in those [trade] discussions, but I do feel like adding depth is something we are going to do," Hoyer said. "We're going to be in on every discussion, but at the same time, I do believe we have the pieces internally to be a heck of a team." 

The name that has garnered attention recently has been Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, who is currently having the best season of his career at age 30, but Hoyer made no indication the Cubs would once again facilitate another blockbuster deal.

And even with Tyler Chatwood struggling to locate in the strike zone this season, Hoyer made it clear the front office hasn't lost faith in their second biggest investment of the off-season. 

"We're confident [Chatwood] will have a better second half, we're going to have a really big, long pennant race," Hoyer said. "It's going to be really challenging second half and we're going to need all the pitching we can possibly get and I think Tyler is going to be a big part of that." 

In terms of team needs, the Cubs are a club with few holes on their roster but could stand to add more pitching in both the bullpen and rotation with everyone but Jon Lester having frustrating moments in the first half of the season.

Making moves similar to the Mike Montgomery trade in 2016 are what Hoyer relishes, telling Kaplan those are the moves the Cubs "pride themselves on." 

But when it comes to Cubs improving on their already impressive first half of baseball, Jed Hoyer continued to back the players who are currently on the roster.

And while it may not be the move that creates the social media buzz fans crave this time of year, Hoyer knows he can get more from his current roster in the second half. 

"There's no doubt that the best way we can get better is by having guys we already have [play] better than they have to date." 

 

Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina has been playing the Cubs for a decade and a half.

For 15 years, Molina has been one of the faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, making nine All-Star Games, winning eight Gold Gloves, playing in nine postseasons and winning a pair of World Series championships. And for much of that time, his Cardinals had the upper hand in the rivalry between the two National League Central foes.

But that's changed in recent years. The Cubs have ascended to the Cardinals' old spot as a perennial contender, and it was their defeat of the Cardinals in the NLDS back in 2015 that really seemed to usher in the current era of World Series expectations on the North Side.

If you watch any rivalry long enough, you'll see the balance of power shift back and forth. Molina has been watching this rivalry for a long time.

"They've got good chemistry, they've got good talent there, they play together," Molina said Tuesday in Washington, D.C., before suiting up alongside Willson Contreras and Javy Baez on the NL All-Star team. "So yeah, they remind me of what we were back in the day with the Cardinals."

High praise considering all that Molina and those old Cardinals teams accomplished.

It wasn't too long ago that the Cardinals were a dominant force in this division and in this rivalry. Between 2009 and 2015, the Cubs lost double-digit games to the Cardinals in all but one season. The Cardinals won a World Series title during that seven-year span (2011), ending all but one of those campaigns with a postseason appearance. The Cubs, meanwhile, had five straight fifth-place finishes and missed the playoffs in all but the last.

But since the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cubs are 30-20 against their biggest rivals, a record that includes that 3-1 series win in the 2015 NLDS.

And now it's the Cubs who have seemingly built a winning machine. Like the Cardinals dominated the division with a core cast of characters that included Molina as well as Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, the Cubs now have that reliable core featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Baez, Contreras and so many others. They're expected to be at the top of the Central standings and compete for championships, just like the Cardinals were for much of a decade.

The Cardinals, of course, have quite recently been thrown into a state of atypical tumult with manager Mike Matheny fired in the middle of the season and a couple off-the-field controversies grabbing national headlines. That's not to say they're exactly out of contention, though, as they begin the second half with an above-.500 record, 7.5 games back of the division-leading Cubs and only four games back for the second NL wild card spot.

But when you compare the drama-drenched Cardinals with the Cubs — who while no one would describe as firing on all cylinders have managed to stay not far behind their 2016 pace — there's a noticeable gap, a gap that's somewhat crazy to think about for those who can remember the Cardinals' past dominance in this rivalry.

Though the Cardinals have actually won more head-to-head matchups this season (five of the eight), the five-game set to begin the second half — the first of eight games between the two teams over the next two weekends — would figure to favor the Cubs, who won 12 of 15 to close out the first half.

"It's important for us to go out there and try to win the series. Right now, we need that as a club," Molina said. "It's going to be tough. The Cubs, they're playing good baseball right now, they've got chemistry there. It's going to be tough, but our concentration is on trying to win the series."