Cubs

Cubs fall short of sweeping Cards

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Cubs fall short of sweeping Cards

David Freese wanted to make sure the Cardinals weren't swept. So he took matters into his own hands.Freese homered and Lance Lynn threw eight strong innings to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a 5-1 win over the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon."You lose two emotional games like we did, you never want to get swept, to get that third one heading back home is nice," Freese said. "We came out of the gate so hot, this game will even you out real quick."Lynn (4-0) held Chicago to six hits in becoming the first four-game winner in the majors and helping the Cardinals avoid a three-game sweep."What Lance was able to do set the tone for everything," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Whenever he did get into a little trouble, it was a lot like what we saw with (Adam Wainwright on Tuesday) - just made better pitches."Freese's two-run blast in the sixth capped a three-run, two-out rally against starter Chris Volstad. Freese added an RBI double in the eighth."We put up enough runs - we'd still like to put it on the opponent a little harder, a little more, but we'll take this one," Freese said. "Our pitchers are doing a phenomenal job, we just have to keep scrapping."Volstad (0-3) threw six solid innings, retiring St. Louis in order during four of them. But he's still 0-8 in 15 starts since July 10, 2011.Bryan LaHair homered to lead off the fourth for Chicago's only run. LaHair has four of Chicago's lowest seven home runs this season, the lowest total in the majors."I'm going pretty good when I go the other way," LaHair said after his second straight day with an opposite-field homer. "They're attacking me away right now. They'll probably start coming in, which is a good thing, too."The Cardinals avoided being swept at Wrigley Field for the first time since July 27-30, 2006. The Cubs took the first two games of the series in their final at-bat, winning their first series of the season under new manager Dale Sveum.Lynn threw 110 pitches, only the third time this season a Cardinals pitcher has surpassed 100. He's done it on two of those occasions, not bad for a pitcher who only became a starter because rotation stalwart Chris Carpenter went on the disabled list with a shoulder problem. His eight innings marked the longest outing by a Cardinals pitcher this season, and he lowered his ERA to 1.33."Early on they were putting good swings on ball," Lynn said. "I was able to start making the ball move a little bit more and getting quicker outs later in the game."Freese led the Cardinals offense with two hits and three RBIs. Carlos Beltran doubled, walked, scored two runs and stole two bases.Beltran has five steals this season, already his most since 2009.The sixth-inning double snapped an 0 for 18 slump for Beltran. Matheny planned on giving Beltran the day off Wednesday, but the 35-year-old asked to be in the lineup."You love that from a veteran player, who's just begging to be in there a day game after a night game," Matheny said. "Yesterday was his birthday. The guys were all over him about trying to make something happen.""He was excited to make something happen today."NOTES:
Shane Robinson singled three times and stole a base for St. Louis. His three hits matched a career high. ... The Cardinals are headed back to St. Louis for a six-game homestand beginning Friday against Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. . The Cubs embark on a seven-game trip, with a four-game set beginning at Philadelphia on Friday. They also play three at Cincinnati. . Cubs reliever Kerry Wood threw a bullpen session on Tuesday without incident. He's on the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue. While Wood is eligible to come off the DL on April 29, Sveum said no timetable has been established for his return.

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

After finishing 30th in goals against average (3.55) and 31st in penalty kill percentage (72.7) this past season, the Blackhawks are clearly making it a priority to patch up their defense this summer. And that's been evident with the acquisitions of defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta.

But it raises some interesting questions about the future of the Blackhawks blue line.

With the de Haan and Maatta additions, the Blackhawks now have five defensemen under contract through at least the 2021-22 season: Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million cap hit), Duncan Keith ($5.538 million), de Haan ($4.55 million), Maatta ($4.083 million) and Connor Murphy ($3.85 million). That's $24.8 million tied up to five guys.

The money isn't the primary concern, though. It's the limited amount of roster spots available. The Blackhawks don't have to immediately figure out how it's going to work a year from now and beyond, but it makes you wonder how the cards may eventually be shuffled.

Let's run through the situations:

— Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's obviously not part of the five current players under contract after next season, putting the Blackhawks in a spot where they have to consider trading him or be comfortable with letting him walk for nothing if he isn't re-signed. (They could always trade his negotiating rights after next season and pull off a sign-and-trade as well, if it came to that).

And even if Gustafsson is re-signed, the Blackhawks would then have six players locked up for the 2020-21 season and on, and that's enough to submit a lineup.

— Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2017, is probably ready to take the next step and become an everyday player. Where does he fit into the long-term plans?

— Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018, likely needs one more year in the OHL before making the jump to the NHL, which would put him on a timeline to become part of the Blackhawks next season. Does he occupy that sixth spot if another one isn't opened by then?

— Nicolas Beaudin, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2018, is expected to start the upcoming season in Rockford after four years in the QMJHL but might be NHL-ready by the 2020-21 campaign.

— And then there's Ian Mitchell, who's returning to Denver for his junior season and will serve as the team's captain. He's said all along that he intends to sign with the Blackhawks once he's finished with college, but does the organization value him enough to create a spot for him when he's ready?

To make things a little more complicated, the Seattle expansion draft is set to occur in 2021 and the same rules will apply as Vegas in 2017.

The Blackhawks have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft (and who decline to waive them) must be protected; Keith and Seabrook have a NMC. And all first- and second-year pros are exempt; Jokiharju would have to be protected.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks are likely to use the eight-skater option, but they will also have valuable forwards to protect. They're going to lose a good player one way or another, and it's probably going to come from the defensive group. All of this comes into play when weighing roster decisions for next season and beyond.

As stated above, the Blackhawks do not have to make an immediate decision on the future of their blue line corps. They can play out the 2019-20 season with the group as currently constructed. But the decisions the Blackhawks have to face next season could impact how Stan Bowman operates the rest of this summer and throughout the upcoming campaign.

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