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."

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A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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