Cubs

Theo Epstein shoulders blame for Cubs' brutal start: 'It's ultimately all my responsibility'

Theo Epstein shoulders blame for Cubs' brutal start: 'It's ultimately all my responsibility'

MILWAUKEE — Who deserves the most blame for the Cubs' sluggish 1-6 start to the season?

The bullpen? The manager? The pitching coach? The owner? The front office? 

The answer is everybody, because when a team with high expectations has a first week-plus to this level, there's enough blame to go around.

But while the fanbase and the rest of Chicago plays The Blame Game, team president Theo Epstein won't get into all that. 

"There's always a search for scapegoats when you get off to a tough start," Epstein said. "[Pitching coach] Tommy Hottovy is not the problem. He's a big part of the solution. [Chairman] Tom Ricketts is not the problem. It's not a resource issue. If people have a problem with the allocation of resources, then that's me. It has been ever since I got here. It's been a lot of good and some bad.

"It's a team-wide issue and we know we have to play better ball. The search for magic bullets or scapegoats, I don't think that's really productive. I understand it, but it's ultimately all my responsibility. How we play on the field, the talent that we have, the direction we're headed. 

"And yet I'm not alone. Thank God. We have really talented people here and great players that we trust and we're all gonna be part of pulling us out of this."

Epstein stood in the third-base dugout at Miller Park as he addressed the media, some 70 minutes before his team went out on the field and gave up another early lead to the red-hot Brewers as Lorenzo Cain led off the bottom of the first with a solo shot off Cole Hamels.

Three batters later, Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar reached base on Victor Caratini's catcher's interference, accounting for the 12th error by this Cubs team in the first 8 games. 

Those two instances underscored the main early-season issues: ineffective pitching and questionable defense, though the Cubs were able to turn things around and finally get back in the win column.

The bullpen was a big question coming into the season and it remains an area of concern. But the starting pitching has struggled mightily outside of Jon Lester and this team is supposed to be a club that plays with good fundamentals and defense. 

"It's been real close to — if not — a worst case scenario for us, defensively and in terms of our pitching, especially the strike-throwing," Epstein said. "That gets your attention in a negative way and it's not the start any of us wanted. 

"We're sorry we're putting our fans through this. We want to put our best foot forward. ... We know that we need to change the script. We also know we control that. It's on us to play better ball defensively, throw more strikes and this thing should stabilize in a hurry. I think it's important to do that pretty soon. 

"In a really competitive league and an even more competitive division, you don't want to dig yourself too great a hole. It's pretty important that we turn this thing around real quickly and start digging our way back to .500 and go from there."

In a vacuum, the Cubs' tough start would be one thing. But when it's compounded with the Brewers picking up right where they left off last year with a 7-1 start, the struggles are magnified.

The Cubs entered play Saturday a whopping 5.5 games behind the Brewers. It's obviously way too early to be thinking about magic numbers or standings, but that's a sizable gap that has already been created before the Cubs have even stepped foot on Wrigley Field.

"It's a challenging year regardless," Epstein said. "It's not the time to dig yourself a really deep hole and have to dedicate months to getting out of it. We have to try to nip this thing in the bud and claw back to .500. 

"Go on a winning streak, have a really good homestand, have a really good road trip, whatever it may be and kinda claw our way back quickly so it doesn't become a season-defining hole. We want to turn it around very quickly."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.