It’s hard to believe tonight felt like a must win for the Cubs as they entered just the fifth game of the young season. Then again, it’s hard to remember a Cubs team of this caliber sputtering to a 1-3 start while their division rivals, the Milwaukee Brewers, have busted out to a 6-1 record, looking impossibly good.
If you thought games two and three in Texas were frustrating enough, that broken record just kept on playing. The Cubs offense scored enough, the starting pitching was sufficient, but the bullpen faltered late in spectacular form (yet again!) as the Cubs fell to Atlanta, 6-4.
After a promising start to the top of the first — a Ben Zobrist leadoff single and Anthony Rizzo walk two batters later — Javier Baez lined a missile right at Josh Donaldson, who easily doubled up Rizzo at second to end the inning. As if the Cubs didn’t strand enough runners Monday night, they immediately followed suit by wasting a precious opportunity to start the game, even if this wasted chance was more due to bad luck than bad hitting.
If that turn of events wasn’t bad enough, Ozzie Albies immediately singled up the middle off Lester in the bottom of the first, complete with a rare misplay by Jason Heyward that allowed Albies to scamper all the way to third. Another day in Atlanta, another awkward error by the Cubs defense.
This time, however, things were different. Lester worked around a walk before striking out Freddie Freeman and inducing an inning ending double play, somehow exiting the first with the game still scoreless.
The Cubs’ bats proved hot yet again in the second. A Kyle Schwarber single led the inning off, and though he was caught stealing (perhaps a missed hit-and-run by Willson Contreras?) the Cubs managed four hits in all in the inning, complete with an RBI single by Lester to give the Cubs a 1-0 edge.
Atlanta answered back in the bottom half of the third with a couple of solo blasts by Dansby Swanson and Albies, giving the home team a 2-1 edge. While a little drama unfolded after those shots (Nick Markakis lined out to Heyward in center with runners on second and third to end the inning) Lester escaped once again, albeit this time surrendering the lead in the process. Still, Jon was at a manageable 54 pitches, showing the poise that Cubs fans have become accustomed to.
The game continued relatively quiet for a few innings from there. Lester shut down Atlanta in the fourth, and Zobrist led off the fifth with a single before Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez struck out in succession to end the inning.
Jonny Venters relieved Teheran in the sixth, who tallied an effective 91 pitches over five innings of one run ball. The Cubs immediately took advantage.
Schwarber walked to leadoff the inning before Willson Contreras pummeled a 3-1 pitch to straightaway center, a 452 foot shot that left the bat at 112.9 mph. A Lester walk and Heyward single later gave the Cubs a prime opportunity to extend their sudden lead, though the Cubs came up empty-handed thereafter, clinging to a sudden 3-2 lead.
The Cubs added a run in the top of the seventh, Rizzo scoring from third on a wild pitch that scooted just feet away from home plate. It was an aggressive, bold, and brilliant play by Rizzo — an important insurance run created by the Captain’s sheer will.
Perhaps establishing a bit of consistency, Lester once again pitched six innings, surrendering just two earned runs. While he only produced nine swinging strikes, averaging roughly ~90 on his heater, he managed to strike out seven while walking three, scattering six hits (including the two home runs). Lester continues to out-pitch his peripherals, defying the odds of bad luck and enduring high-leverage scenarios, working his way out of jams through grit and determination. Even at age 35 he remains an absolute gamer.
It’s hard to overstate Lester’s impact since coming over to the Cubs, so why not just throw in a little more praise to our de facto Ace:
Most starts by a Lefty of 6+ innings & 2 or fewer runs allowed
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) April 4, 2019
Brandon Kintzler pitched a scoreless bottom half of the seventh, continuing his welcome presence to a ‘pen in desperate need of effective arms. While early, Kintzler (including tonight) has thrown 2.2 scoreless innings in 2019, striking out four while failing to surrender a hit or a walk. These numbers obviously won’t stand as the year progresses, but Kintzler was once an effective back-end bullpen arm, and his resurgence would be an absolute boon for a unit sorely needing it.
Of course, that optimism soured in the bottom of the eighth. Steve Cishek was uncharacteristically wild, walking the first two batters on just nine pitches. Facing the patient veteran Markakis with two on and nobody out, he worked a full count before walking the lefty as well. It was hard to believe that Cishek struggled that mightily; it wasn’t at all a surprise that the Cubs’ bullpen once again faltered late in the ball game.
Randy Rosario entered for Cishek, immediately surrendering the lead by giving up up a bases clearing double to Johan Camargo. It was as deflating a moment as it was expected, as the ‘pen has now blown three late leads in the season’s first five games.
Atlanta tacked on another run for good measure to make it 6-4, and while the Cubs threatened in the ninth by getting the tying run to the plate, the drama was minimal.
This was a terrible loss, a story that keeps on repeating itself. For the Cubs to right the ship the ‘pen must improve, but there’s no sign that’ll be happening anytime soon.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will try to salvage a game of this series tomorrow night at 6:20 CST on NBC Sports. Yu Darvish (0-1, 10.13 ERA) will look to rebound after an abysmal outing in Texas against young lefty Max Fried. With Fried a bit of a fill-in starter it’ll be crucial for the Cubs to show patience and have good at-bats early, hopefully driving up his pitch count and forcing manager Brian Snitker to utilize the bullpen early.
After wrapping up the three game set in Atlanta the Cubs will head to Milwaukee for their first divisional series of the year — suddenly a huge series given the opposite trajectory of the two squads.
The home opener in Chicago follows on Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at 1:20 CST.