With no Rondon or Strop, Cubs bullpen implodes in loss to Cardinals

With no Rondon or Strop, Cubs bullpen implodes in loss to Cardinals

“That’s an example of what the team looks like without Strop and Rondon.”

The Cubs are without their seventh- and eight-inning men for the time being, with Hector Rondon unavailable of late and Pedro Strop on the shelf for four to six weeks after Friday surgery. In other words, the bullpen is missing two of its top relievers, and exactly how much the team misses those guys was painfully evident in Saturday’s 8-4 loss to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field, a defeat that brought an end to the Cubs’ 11-game winning streak.

The game was knotted at 2 heading to the eighth inning, and Carl Edwards Jr. took over after Kyle Hendricks threw seven dominant innings. Edwards, though, had a nightmare of an inning.

After getting a leadoff lineout, Edwards sandwiched his first two walks around a base hit to load the bases. He struck out Yadier Molina, but the third strike was a wild pitch, allowing Stephen Piscotty to come home and score the tie-breaking run. Another walk reloaded the bases, and a fourth free pass forced in a run to make it a 4-2 game. That’s when Edwards was lifted in favor of Joe Smith, but Randal Grichuk blasted a grand slam into the basket in left-center field to give the Cardinals a six-run inning and a six-run lead.

Despite as ugly an inning as you’ll see from a reliever — Edwards allowed five runs, four walks, a hit and a wild pitch in 2/3 of an inning — Cubs manager Joe Maddon still sang Edwards’ praises following the defeat. Entering Saturday, Edwards had a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings of work.

“That’s an example of what the team looks like without Strop and Rondon,” Maddon said after the game. “Regardless, I felt really good about CJ in that moment. He’s been outstanding. He gets that first out quickly. The walk, then all of a sudden that ground ball gets through, and he lost his command, obviously, a little bit. But the way he’s been pitching? Again nobody’s perfect, but I think he’s been outstanding. It just didn’t play out tonight. But there’s going to be other times later in the year — even with Ronny here and Stropy coming back — that you’re still going to see him in that moment, I have that kind of faith in him.

“Truthfully, if we had more people available, I would not have let it go that deep, but there was all kinds of little stuff going on, little nuance within that moment. So I left him out there, it didn’t work out, and that’s just how it plays.”

Maddon pointed out that Edwards pitching in that situation could serve as a learning moment, and certainly no one had any worries about Edwards moving forward following the game.

“He had a bad day, I get it, but I like this kid a lot,” Maddon said. “Part of leaving him out there, too, is to learn how to get out of that moment, also. And if he does and he walks off, he’s learned another lesson. It didn’t play out that way.”

“He’ll be all right. He’s still young. He’s probably going to be asked to do a little bit more now than what he’s done in the past with Strop and Hector being down. But he’s got the stuff to do it,” Smith said. “He’s awesome. We have fun down in the bullpen hanging out. We’ve all been there and done that. It’s just one of those things, for him, put it behind him and move on. He’s got great stuff, he’s going to have a good career.”

Smith, too, had his struggle. He didn’t load the bases to set up the unenviable jam he found himself in when he entered, but he’s made his money getting out of such jams and instead he coughed up a grand slam that effectively ended the game.

The Grichuk homer continued Smith’s rough start with the Cubs. Since coming over in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels, Smith has a 6.00 ERA and has given up three homers in four appearances. Right-handers are hitting .294 off Smith this season compared to .216 over the course of his career.

“I’ve never had a problem with that in my whole career. I don’t know. Just missing, and when I miss, they seem to hit it over the wall,” Smith said.” I haven’t had that problem in my career yet either. Sometimes this game’s crazy and it doesn’t go the way you want it to go. I’ve had people roll over that ball hundreds of times, and now I’ve had people hit it over the wall in really not-good situations to do that in.

“Just got to keep going, keep working. I’ll figure it out. I’m not worried. It’s just aggravating. When you come to a new team, you obviously want to do well, and you obviously want to do well right off the bat, show what you can do. But it hasn’t gone that way.”

The bullpen’s woes along with some silent Cubs bats wiped away Hendricks’ impressive efforts. The starting pitcher matched a career high with 12 strikeouts, allowing just a pair of solo home runs to Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, the latter tying the game at 2.

The Cubs could’ve had a much larger lead, getting to Cardinals starter Luke Weaver in the second inning. Weaver, making his major league debut, gave up a two-run homer to Addison Russell and loaded the bases following the long ball, but the Cubs couldn’t add on any more tallies and picked up just two hits over the next six innings. The Cubs did score two runs in the ninth, one on a throwing error and another on a groundout. But those runs were hardly enough after the Cardinals’ big eighth inning against Cubs relievers.

And so the 11-game winning streak came to a close. Guess the Cubs will have to be content with being 31 games above .500.

“Was hoping we could keep that winning streak going,” Hendricks said. “But just start a new one tomorrow.”

Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Brandon Morrow will not be ready to join the Cubs bullpen in the near future.

It was expected the closer would miss at least the first month of the season after recovering from November elbow surgery, but now the Cubs say Morrow has suffered a setback and they're shutting down the 34-year-old pitcher.

Morrow threw a bullpen at the Cubs' complex in Arizona earlier in the week and experienced some of the same issues in his arm after.

"The bounceback after the last time out wasn't as good, so we gotta back off him once again and just slow things down," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "It's just where he's at. It's not unlike what had been going on earlier.

"It was all trending very well and this last time, just not as good. So we have to pay attention to what he's saying."

Morrow will not pick up a baseball for a little while, though the Cubs didn't specify exactly how long that would be. This obviously pushes Morrow's timeline back significantly and raises serious questions about his status moving forward this season.

He has not appeared in a game since July 15 last year, hitting the shelf with what was classified as a biceps issue initially and then later revealed as a bone bruise. The surgery in November was a debridement procedure similar to what Yu Darvish underwent in September for his own bone bruise.

The Cubs have been very conservative with Morrow throughout his entire recovery, especially given his long injury history. 

Yet even with that conservative approach, nine months away from game action to let the injury recover and the procedure on his elbow to clean things up, Morrow is still experiencing similar issues to what he went through in the second half of last year. As he tried to come back and join the Cubs' pennant race last August and September, Morrow also struggled bouncing back after throwing sessions.

It will be a bit until the Cubs have any sort of definitive timeline on Morrow, but in the meantime, they'll continue piecing together a bullpen that has found its footing lately after a brutal stretch to begin the season. 

The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way soon in the form of veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette, who both signed free-agent deals with the team over the winter. Cedeno, a 32-year-old lefty, is throwing another rehab game in Double-A Tennessee Saturday while Barnette — a 35-year-old righty — is expected to make his first rehab appearance with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant


A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

Does a 2-for-4 mean you are on track?

The answer is, it depends.

Kris Bryant is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Champion and a super talent. Not just because he displays the outward abilities like power or hitting for average, but because he has the less visible skills, like good baserunning, plate discipline, intangible instincts.

Kris Bryant has been having a tough time by Bryant standards. It is easy to rattle off numbers to underscore the distance between today and his MVP season. Early 2019 shows the .368 slugging, the hitting under .200 vs. lefties, the near .100 with two strikes and the .154 batting average when he pulls the ball.

Yet despite knowing these numbers are only after 68 at-bats, there is a deeper concern because of expectation.

The Cubs need Bryant. Last season, he was still a solid player, but the Cubs were banking on an All-Star to create a few more wins, and as we know, a few more wins and the Cubs win the NL Central outright.

Injuries have crept in; doubt always follows, even after you have a clean bill of health. Bryant also got hit in the face, which gets lost in some of the noise. These injuries and setbacks stay with a player, creeping up after a twinge in the weight room, the break-up with your girlfriend, the sleeping funny on your pillow the night before, the three game series in the stadium where you don’t pick up the ball out of the batter’s eye.

Outside of the standard numbers, his baserunning was down last season. He had been masterful of going first to third, first to home and second to home. He created runs by having great reads and even better instincts. But he was not quite as effective last year, and not getting quite the same reads, at least so the numbers say. In Bill James' annual handbook for 2018, Bryant's baserunning was calculated as a -5 net loss, which accounts for advancing extra bases, baserunning outs, double plays and a stolen bases.

But slumps are part of any players career, and they are not always just an offensive thing. In fact, they are as normal as being on fire, and there are times when the lines blur between being in one and getting out of one. It matters which direction you are heading in.

A player like Bryant has the ability to reduce the damage of a slump. He can walk and he can get on base with his eyes, all while he is fixing he stroke. He is dangerous enough of a power hitter to induce walks just because of the threat. Pitchers may know he is struggling, but they also know, one bad pitch and the ball is on Waveland Ave., no matter what he did the last seven days.

I had my share of slumps in my career and I define it as a place of relativity. We are comparing to what we think should be, both based on past and future. But it is deceiving to base expectation only on the comfort of hard data, not data that in reality is fluid and constantly changing with time and environment. Bryant's MVP season also had ups and downs, but he kept the downs short.

It is still early and Bryant still has a good space between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.235 average and a respectable .342 OBP), but he is expected to be dominant from tape to tape by this point in his career, with all the lofty traditional numbers to go with it—OBP, AVG, HR, RBIs. And for the Cubs to not just win, but win it all, Bryant's ability to be that day in and day out threat is pivotal.

Keep in mind, everyone is making major adjustments to Bryant, and it is not just his opponents on the field, but the opponent in the cloud. The data and the speed of these data-driven adjustments are lightning quick, especially against a player that can beat you single-handedly.

I remember when I was struggling mid-career, and we were heading to Toronto for a series. I was in the batting cage with Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae and expressing my frustration. I was fouling out to first, to the catcher, rolling over on balls down the middle. Then Hal said to me that it was a “credit to your talent that you are hitting close to .270 when your heart and mind are clearly with your father.”

My father was in and out of the hospital that year and eventually would pass away the last game of the season a couple of years later. There was no stat for anxiety or stress, no multiplier to explain the degree by which you are off your game. Maybe that stress is a motivator, provides an edge in some players, in others, not so much. But slumps are part mechanical as they are part mental, emotional, psychological. And they can come out of nowhere; we often don’t know what a player is going through even if it is just a bad swing and bad pitching matchups for him.

It is not the slump, but how quickly you can get out of a slump. Three weeks instead of three days makes a world of difference. Those who do not have the opportunity to play through a slump, will not make it.

When I was a veteran in the game, besides the skill decline and the health decline, there was the opportunity decline. I no longer would be granted the bandwidth to struggle through it. I needed to produce every time I got the chance to play, even if I had two weeks between starts. When a team will not stick with you, you lose the pathway to get out of the hole you dug. And often the hole gets bigger. Bryant does not have this problem.

That is because Bryant has time and has earned the time on a good team that has other assets to keep them competitive. Yet being granted time does not mean the team has time. The manager, the coaches, the closer, are on clocks too.

Working hard can do a lot, but only so much. The doubt has to go, the second guessing of self or that in-between trapped feeling when you don’t know what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand, has to go.        

The Cubs know they are built from many talented assets, many players that can do the job. At different times in the season, a different player will carry the team. If the rotation keeps rolling, while key players like Baez and Contreras are producing, and the wins are rolling in, Bryant can work through it, just another reason why being on a team that picks each other up matters so much.

The slump is highly dependent on time and opportunity. This needs to be the Cubs' year, so the time is now, and they have to keep betting that the former league MVP will find a big way out, then he will carry this team for a while, maybe right back to the World Series. Then all will certainly forget what Bryant’s stat sheet showed before April 19, 2019.  

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