Cubs

Wacky inning spoils Jon Lester's stellar start, pits Cubs on wrong end of sweep

Wacky inning spoils Jon Lester's stellar start, pits Cubs on wrong end of sweep

Jon Lester has allowed all of two runs in 18 innings to start the season and yet he's still searching for his first win pitching in front of the best defense in the league and a high-powered offense.

The Cubs bullpen struggled for the second straight day and some tough bounces went Pittsburgh's way as the Pirates completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field with a 6-1 win Sunday afternoon.

Lester and Jameson Taillon matched zeros through 6.5 innings before the Cubs pushed a run across when pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella doubled off the glove of Pirates left fielder Adam Frazier.

But the Pirates came right back against Koji Uehara in an ugly and wild eighth inning that saw three runs cross home plate.

Uehara didn't record an out, surrendering one run on a walk, double, walk and bloop single before Joe Maddon jogged out of the dugout to retrieve him.

Hector Rondon came on in search of a Houdini act and at first, it looked like he was up to the task, getting Starling Marte to ground out to Javy Baez, who made a nice pick and throw home to get the lead runner.

Anthony Rizzo followed with a barehanded pickup a few pitches later but his throw carried Willson Contreras off home plate. The next hitter, David Freese, flew out to right field but Jason Heyward's throw home skipped up the third base line and off Contreras, allowing the third run to score.

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Uehara was charged with three runs - two earned. It is the first time he's allowed a run since July 9, 2016 - a span of 20 innings - which served as the longest streak in the majors among relievers.

The Pirates added on in the ninth off Justin Grimm on Adam Frazier's three-run homer. It was only the sixth professional homer for Frazier in 434 games.

Lester's start was spoiled again as he went seven shutout innings allowing just three hits and two walks compared to three strikeouts. Contreras helped his starter out by gunning down three Pirates on the basepaths, including a classic David Ross-esque back-pick at first base to nab Freese in the seventh.

"They've been working really well," Maddon said of the new pitcher-catcher duo. "From my perspective, Jonny's really taken control of the situation. Willson called the pitch that got a first pitch out of [Andrew] McCutchen and immediately, Jonny acknowledged Willson coming to the dugout based on the call of the pitch.

"So they're really getting into that method right now. I know Willy's really grinding it out. He's really trying to be everything to all the pitchers. He'll settle down; he'll settle into it; he'll get into his groove. When he starts hitting, heads up. It's gonna get even better behind the plate. I thought he did a really good job with [Lester]."

Lester now has a 1.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP on the season through his first three starts, picking up right where he left off after a 2.02 ERA in 35.2 postseason innings last fall.

The sweep is a tough pill for the Cubs to swallow as it sends them back to .500 overall (6-6) on the season. Meanwhile, the Pirates - who had dropped four straight entering the weekend series at Wrigley - climbed to 6-6 as well.

In the final two games of the series, the Cubs bullpen allowed 11 runs in 5.1 innings.

"Two days in a row, we just gotta do a better job in the latter part of the game protecting leads," Maddon said. "That's all...

"We did not get the [big] hit. I totally agree with that. That's been more of our problem than anything — not getting that clutch hit and not holding a lead in the latter part of the game."

The Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers into Wrigley Field Monday night for a three-game series that will be preceded by a mini World Series ring ceremony for Travis Wood, Jason Hammel and Jorge Soler. 

Monday's game will be aired on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. and you can also stream the game on CSNChicago.com and through the NBC Sports App.

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

Cubs third baseman David Bote charged down the line and called off pitcher Alec Mills.

Bote snagged the bunt with his bare right hand and slung it across is body. Bote’s throw to first beat the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi by half a step.

“It does nothing but fire you up,” Mills said after the Cubs’ 2-0 win over the Royals on Monday.

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Bote had been filling in for Kris Bryant at third for the previous two games, but when Bryant returned on Monday, Bote remained in the lineup. Even as a role player, Bote entered Monday's series opener with a top-5 batting average (.278) on the team and  tied for second in RBIs (5). But Cubs manager David Ross also trusted him in the infield with a groundball pitcher on the mound. Bote’s defense shone.

It stood out even in a game that included an outstanding tag by shortstop Javier Báez to catch a runner stealing and Jason Heyward covering a ton of ground in right field.

“I’m proud of our defense,” Ross said. “That’s something that we’ve emphasized that could be better, and it’s been so great. These guys are getting a lot of work in.”

This time, Bote knew long before the game that he was playing. On Saturday, when Bryant was a late scratch due to an upset stomach, Bote found out five minutes before first pitch that he was starting at third base.

On Monday, Bote remained at third, and Bryant started in left field. That setup put extra speed in left on a windy day and allowed Kyle Schwarber, who had played in left for the past three games, to be the designated hitter.

Bote worked with bench coach Andy Green on slow-rolling ground balls before the game, according to Ross.

 “This is one of the teams that bunt a lot in this league,” Báez said, “and we were ready for it.”

Bote proved that with a bare-handed grab seventh inning, when the Cubs were protecting a one-run lead. He threw out Mondesi for the final out of the inning.  But then, he made another bare-handed play the next inning.

Bare-handing a bunt and throwing across the body on the run is a play exclusive to third basemen. The downside of playing multiple positions is a utility man like Bote has to spread his receptions out among those positions.

Bote had attempted a bare-handed play once before in the season, but he didn’t field it cleanly – there’s a reason infielders use their gloves whenever possible. The margin for error is so much smaller without them.

In the eighth inning, Whit Merrifield hit a weak ground ball to Bote. The third baseman charged, fielded the ball with his right hand, and again threw across the diamond on the run. That was the second out of the inning.

“Both of those plays could have gone either way,” Bryant said of Bote’s bare-handed grabs, “and then there’s runners on base there. You don’t know how the game’s going to turn out.”

Case in point: Jorge Soler hit a single right after Bote’s eight-inning play. If Bote hadn’t thrown Merrifield out, he would be in scoring position with one out.

Instead, Rowan Wick took over for Casey Sadler on the mound and struck out the next batter to end the inning.

“It’s those little things in the games that don’t get too much attention,” Bryant continued, “but they definitely do change the momentum of everything out there.”

 

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How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

One of the unnoticed benefits of Javy Báez’s game-ending single in the 11th inning Sunday against the Pirates was that it eliminated a 12th inning that would have belonged to the struggling Craig Kimbrel.

That was David Ross’ next man out of the bullpen, the Cubs manager said Monday.

Instead, we watched the man who would be — and should be — the closer pitch out of the contrived jam (man on second) that is the start of each extra inning this year, and earn the win.

Or did we?

One day after veteran Jeremy Jeffress needed just nine pitches to beat the Pirates in the best of four impressive bullpen appearances, Rowan Wick earned a four-out save in a 2-0 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

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And just like that, the Cubs unveiled a closer-by-committee scheme, if not a closer controversy.

The way the first eight games looked, it's hard to imagine having enough reliable pitchers for a quorum. much less a bona fide committee, among the 14 pitchers who have occupied roster spots in the Cubs’ pen so far.

But until or unless Kimbrel (four walks, two homers, one wild pitch and four outs so far) gets right again, that’s the plan for closing out close games, Ross said after Monday’s game.

“I think every night will be different,” he said. “Every night we’re trying to find the best matchups and who’s throwing well.”

Jeffress is the one guy in the group who has the track record, the unflappable veteran presence and the cold-blooded performance so far this year that included escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in addition to Sunday’s 11th-inning work.

Whether Jeffress was considered unavailable Monday because of high-leverage innings both Saturday and Sunday or Ross liked Wick’s 95-mph fastball/curveball mix against the middle of the Royals order, it was last year’s rookie success story on this night.

“It’s going to be a full team effort down there,” Ross said. “I’m not scared to pull the trigger in a lot of areas with a lot of those guys. They’ve done a really good job of answering the bell here lately and we’ll continue to assess on a daily basis.”

For now it has meant eight consecutive scoreless innings the last two nights against two of the worst teams in baseball for a Cubs bullpen that ranked last in the majors in ERA and several other categories.

That’s not what Ross means when he talks about looking for matchups.

But 10 games into 60-game season, that bullpen almost certainly will continue to be assessed on a daily basis top to bottom.

And with its $43 million closer looking like the weakest link since September, the end of any game with a close lead might be the most intriguing thing to watch with this team for as long as this pandemic season might last.

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