October issues for Cubs exposed in Game 1 loss to Pirates


October issues for Cubs exposed in Game 1 loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH – All these issues will be magnified in October.

The Cubs didn’t measure up to the Pittsburgh Pirates in this potential playoff preview, unraveling in the eighth inning of a 5-4 Game 1 loss and exposing their trouble spots during Tuesday’s doubleheader at PNC Park.

“There’s a lot of gifted runs in that game both ways,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “When you get to that latter part of the game, we have to do a better job of forcing the other team to beat us — as opposed to self-inflicted wounds.”

For all of their talented young hitters and good clubhouse vibes, the Cubs weren’t built as a defense-first team and that farm system hasn’t produced enough impact pitchers yet to diversify the bullpen.

The Pirates didn’t play a perfect game, but they quickly capitalized when Justin Grimm gave up a leadoff walk to Pedro Alvarez in the eighth inning.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein’s ideas about fixing the wild-card format]

Pinch-runner Pedro Florimon stole second base and hustled to third when Miguel Montero’s throw bounced past Starlin Castro into center field. That went down as an error for the veteran catcher and Florimon scored the go-ahead run on Starling Marte’s sacrifice fly.

“I’m beating myself,” Grimm said. “The other teams aren’t beating me. I’m beating myself.”

Just like that, the Cubs wasted the four runs they manufactured against Gerrit Cole, the stud right-hander lined up for the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7 (unless the Pirates catch the St. Louis Cardinals).

The Cubs have built a relentless American League-style lineup that will keep gathering intelligence on Cole, the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in the 2011 draft. Cole pitched into the seventh inning before turning the game over to Joakim Soria, who threw two wild pitches, allowing Castro and Tommy La Stella to score the game-tying runs.

[MORE CUBS: Long-term deal for Theo Epstein can wait with Cubs in playoff race]

But the Cubs know that power pitching plays in October, and they have question marks at the back of the rotation beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, not to mention a bullpen that’s been trying to cover up for those issues pretty much all season.

Jason Hammel appeared to be in trouble from the start, walking two batters and hitting another in a three-run first inning. Hammel walked off the mound with two outs in the fourth and the Cubs already trailing 4-1, not the way to begin a doubleheader against a team that’s 30 games over .500.

“Pretty embarrassing,” Hammel said. “It pisses me off. I’m a starter – set the tone – and I haven’t done it in awhile. I got to figure it out.

“What I’m doing right now isn’t acceptable. So I got to get to work and we’re running out of time. I take a lot of pride in my work and right now it’s not translating.

“Outstanding job with the guys to bounce back and make a game of it. But they’ve been doing that too often. I need to start pulling my own weight here.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs built up enough of a cushion that they shouldn’t collapse down the stretch. But there will be nowhere to hide in a one-game playoff.

Grimm (3-5, 2.22 ERA) has been such a huge piece to this bullpen, a reason why the Cubs are positioned for the playoffs. But there’s always a price to be paid. The line from his last 10 appearances: 8.1 innings, 12 runs (6 earned), 8 hits, 8 walks.

“I just got to find my confidence and get my aggressiveness back,” Grimm said. “Right now, I’m just trying to finish out strong and then worry about October in October.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound


Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.