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.

Brandon Morrow ruled out for the year as Cubs dealt another big blow to bullpen

Brandon Morrow ruled out for the year as Cubs dealt another big blow to bullpen

Brandon Morrow won't be riding in to save the day for the Cubs bullpen this October.

Theo Epstein ruled the closer out for the year Tuesday evening, saying Morrow just couldn't make it all the way back from a bone bruise.

"Every time he pitched, it got worse," Epstein said, according to MLB.com's Carrie Muskat.

Morrow hasn't pitched since before the All-Star break while battling the bone bruise in his forearm.

The Cubs gave him as much time as possible to recover and then he tried to ramp up his rehab over the last couple weeks in an effort to make it back for the postseason. 

He threw off a mound twice last week and then faced live hitters in a sim game Saturday that supposedly went well with the hope of being activated either sometime this week in Arizona or over the weekend on the South Side for the Cubs-White Sox series.

This leaves the Cubs in a serious hole in the bullpen for October, a time when relievers become some of the most important players on the roster.

With Pedro Strop's hamstring injury he suffered last Thursday in Washington D.C., the Cubs are down their top two relief pitchers for the final two weeks of the regular season and will be down at least Morrow in the playoffs. 

Strop said Monday he hoped to be able to return to the Cubs over the final weekend of the regular season (Sept. 28-30), but there is still a lot up in the air with his timeline. 

The Cubs are now left with a bullpen that includes Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr. and Jesse Chavez plus a bunch of question marks.

[RELATED — Jesse Chavez has emerged as the most important pitcher in Cubs bullpen]

Will Dillon Maples be able to carve out a role in the October bullpen? What about Jorge De La Rosa or Jaime Garcia? 

The next 13 days will be telling.

Morrow has a long history of injuries over his career - making only 91 appearances (21 starts) and pitching 180.1 innings over the last five seasons entering 2018. He emerged as a dynamic piece of the Dodgers bullpen last October and appeared in each game of the World Series against the Astros.

This is the second pitcher the Cubs have ruled out for the season with a bone bruise, as Yu Darvish also had to be shut down due to a bone bruise in his elbow. Darvish had a debridement procedure on his elbow last week and is supposed to be ready to go for spring training 2019.

Theo Epstein gets a little sassy in response to doubt about Cubs bullpen

Theo Epstein gets a little sassy in response to doubt about Cubs bullpen

Theo Epstein made it known to everyone that he believes in the Cubs bullpen and even shared some statistics with reports yesterday when asked about his club's lack of a true closer. 

The rest of Epstein's comments can be found here, but the Cubs President of Baseball Operations clearly has heard enough about the Cubs bullpen being doomed without Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow, but that hasn't been the case. Since Strop injured his hamstring, the bullpen has thrown 9.2 scoreless innings and seen three different pitchers collect saves in Randy Rosario, Steve Cishek, and Jorge De La Rosa. 

And Epstein is right, the Cubs do own the best ERA among bullpens in the National League with a 3.30 ERA, Padres are in behind them at 3.52 ERA. However, if someone were to check Twitter about the state of the Cubs bullpen, it might seem like things are far worse than they really are. And while they may not have a true closer at the moment, and possibly longer with Brandon Morrow being shut down for the season, the Cubs are the best in baseball at keeping the ball in the park (0.79 HR/FB) and have the best opponent batting average in the National League. 

And when factoring in how many relievers in the bullpen have closing experience, the Cubs bullpen is in better shape than most despite suffering injuries in the second half to their two main closing options in Strop and Morrow. So, for Theo Epstein's sake, stop worrying about the bullpen because the Cubs certainly are not.