Sporting one of the best offenses in the game through the first week of the 2019 campaign but only a 1-4 record to show for it, the Chicago Cubs looked to salvage their three-game set against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
While Monday’s match-up with the Braves was one to forget for Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs, Wednesday’s game could be a sign of things to come for the North Siders this season. Holding the lead late, the Cubs’ bullpen yielded four runs, contributing to a 6-4 loss after Jon Lester tossed six sparkling innings for the second time in as many starts this year.
Despite a leaky bullpen, the Cubs entered play on Thursday leading the major leagues in team OBP (.420), ranking fifth in team slugging percentage (.505) and third in wRC-plus (142). Those numbers, in large part, were amassed after the Cubs plated 28 runs over three games against the Texas Rangers to kick-off the season, figures that began to return to normal following a shut-out on Monday and just four runs on Wednesday.
With the Milwaukee Brewers sitting at 6-1 atop the division, perhaps a little bit of pressure has began to build for a team that already finds themselves 4.5 games back of first place just one week into the new season.
Facing an Atlanta team that won the National League East last season, the Cubs unfortunately showed they had no answers for the Braves nor their young starter.
Making his first start of the 2019 season and tenth overall in his big league career, Atlanta southpaw Max Fried drew the call against the Cubs in the series finale. Fried entered play with a career WAR of just 0.5 but a very solid strikeout rate of 24.4 percent. Even with that number, Fried has worked a lofty walk rate thus far in his career, posting a 12.4 percent mark.
Working mostly with a three-pitch mix since making his major league debut (fastball, curve-ball and change-up), Fried has amassed a 58.6 percent ground ball rate, including a 65.1 percent mark during his rookie campaign of 2015.
On Thursday, it did not take the young lefty long to establish his ground ball pitch, retiring the first three Cubs hitters with balls on the ground, including two to the first baseman. Things did not get better for the Cubs as the evening progressed and the rain fell in Atlanta.
For an offense that looked to be clicking on all cylinders against the Rangers, the last three games have been like night and day. Through the fourth inning, Fried induced eight ground balls, two fly balls and two punch outs. That trend continued into the fifth as Fried found his strikeout pitch, retiring David Bote and Javier Baez while getting Willson Contreras to bounce into another ground out.
After factoring in four strikeouts, it becomes apparent that the Cubs had very little going on at the plate on Thursday. In fact through five innings, Fried was spinning a perfect game, as the Braves were largely held in check, at least early, by Yu Darvish.
Just five short days ago, Darvish made his 2019 debut after making just eight starts and tossing 40 innings amid elbow injuries last season. While the right-hander looked good in Spring Training despite developing a blister late in camp, Darvish could not find the strike zone in Texas against his former team.
Across just 2.2 innings, the veteran walked a career high seven batters and yielded three runs in an 8-6 loss to the Rangers. In that contest, Darvish never looked settled after retiring the first two Ranger hitters via the strikeout, notching just 38 strikes on 75 total pitches.
On Thursday, despite his team’s offensive struggles, he looked much better against the Braves. In the first, Darvish needed just 14 pitches to induce three ground ball outs, working around a four-pitch walk to Freddie Freeman. While the second inning saw the right-hander yield his first base hit of the contest and second walk, Darvish was able to retire the opposing pitcher, stranding runners on first and third.
As it seemed during many of the handful of starts Darvish made in 2018, one bad inning often wrecked his outing. For perspective into that, across his eight starts last season, the right-hander posted a first inning ERA of 5.62 while his fifth inning mark was north of 25.00 as Darvish allowed 14 runs over just five innings of work.
One year removed from his lackluster 2018 season, the fifth inning is still giving the veteran right-hander problems as it flared up again on Thursday. This time, however, the fourth inning began showing cracks that Darvish was fading as his pitch count inched higher and higher.
Following a strikeout of Ronald Acuna Jr. to kick-off the inning, three straight Braves reached base via singles, the last of which scored the first run of the game, making it 1-0 Atlanta.
The RBI single, which came off the bat of Brian McCann, exited the lumber at 104.6 MPH and was laced over the head of right-fielder Mark Zagunis who drew the start against the left-handed starting pitcher. As the inning progressed, the Cubs’ defense was able to suppress any further run-scoring as Ozzie Albies was gunned down by Contreras between third base and home plate, preventing the chance at another run.
Just one inning later, however, the flood gates opened for the Cubs, Darvish and their less-than-stellar bullpen. The damage kicked-off after Darvish allowed the first two batters of the fifth inning to reach base, one via a double and another on a free pass, running the right-hander’s total to four on the evening.
As Joe Maddon summoned Carl Edwards Jr. out of the Cubs’ bullpen and the right-hander took the mound, the rain seemed to pick up to its hardest point of the night. Perhaps due to his struggles in getting a good grip on the ball or something else, Edwards quickly gave up a walk to Freeman (loading the bases), yielded a wild pitch and yet another walk to Acuna.
That wild pitch pushed the lead to 2-0 Braves as the Acuna walk once again filled the bases as Nick Markakis stepped to the plate. Having saw enough of Edwards, who now sports a 45.00 ERA, Maddon turned to Tyler Chatwood to limit the damage.
With the way the bullpen has played this season, I may not even have to say what happened next on Thursday, but I will anyway.
A 2-2 hanging curve-ball that ended up staying right down the middle of the plate was ripped into center-field at 103.5 MPH by Markakis, clearing the bases and stretching the lead to 5-0 Braves. Two singles later, the Braves were sporting a 6-0 lead, eventually tacking on three additional runs late in the contest, running their lead to 9-0. That was more than enough to defeat a Cubs team that all of a sudden is void of both effective bullpen pitchers and offense.
Through all the craziness of the fifth inning, Fried took his at-bat nursing a perfect game as his team continued to tee-off on the Cubs’ relievers.
Unfortunately for the young lefty, it seemed very unlikely his manager would leave him in the game past the sixth or seventh inning. Without a start yet under his belt this season, Fried had worked just 1.2 innings prior to Thursday, not enough to build the necessary pitch count to last the duration of a nine inning contest.
Nevertheless, the left-hander took the mound in the six, retiring the first two Cub hitters he faced, running his count to 17 straight sent down. For the Cubs, it took a Mark Zagunis single with two outs in the sixth inning to break up Fried’s perfect game, making Brian Snitker‘s job much easier in the home dugout.
With just one hit to his credit, Fried was pulled after six sparkling innings and 88 pitches. On the evening, the southpaw notched 11 ground balls and five strikeouts without yielding a walk in what was perhaps the youngster’s best major league outing.
As for Darvish, the right-hander looked slightly better than he did in Texas.
Evidenced by the above image, Darvish recorded 12 first pitch strikes across a total of 20 batters faced. In addition, the veteran garnered nine swinging strikes (three on the fastball, three on the cutter and three on the slider) on his 71 total pitches, notching another 10 called strikes, with six coming on his four-seam fastball.
As far as velocity goes, Darvish seemed to also improve from his first start, topping out at 95 MPH with his fastball and averaging 93.5 MPH with the offering. Even with all the swinging strikes, the right-hander left the game with runners on base after completing just four-plus innings against the Braves.
His final line looked like this: four innings, five hits, three earned runs, four walks and two strikeouts on 71 pitches. While the season remains young, Darvish has worked just 6.2 total innings across two starts this season. In those frames, the right-hander is sporting an 8.10 ERA and has walked 11 batters.
Again, while it is still early, that is not the kind of start Cubs brass and fans alike thought they would get from their $126 million pitcher, especially considering the fact that he is fully healthy to begin the season.
Down 9-0 entering the ninth inning, the Cubs where finally able to push across their first runs of the game. A Kris Bryant infield single set Anthony Rizzo up for an RBI opportunity with no men out. Against the “B” lineup of the Braves’ bullpen, Rizzo was able to punish a baseball 388-feet into the right-field stands, making it 9-2 Braves and kicking off something of a rally for the Cubs.
Rizzo’s home run left the bat at 97.1 MPH but was quickly upstaged by a 105 MPH, opposite-field shot by Javier Baez just a handful of pitches later. That long-ball gave the Cubs their third run of the game as they were able to notch four base knocks in the ninth inning alone.
While that is not much of an accomplishment by itself, the Cubs had just two hits entering the frame, a testament to Fried’s effectiveness on Thursday. To add to that, the Cubs took just three at-bats with runners in scoring position and left a total of six runners on base as they were largely shut-down over eight innings.
Even with the rally in the ninth, the Cubs still fell by a score of 9-4 on Thursday.
Running their losing streak to four games, the Cubs now sit 1-5 on the season while the Braves improve to 3-3.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will begin a three-game set with the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday at 7:10 pm at Miller Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be left-hander Jose Quintana (0-0, 0.00 ERA). Quinana will be making his first start of the 2019 campaign after working four innings out of the bullpen last Saturday.
In relief of Yu Darvish, Quintana allowed six hits over the aforementioned four innings, allowing two unearned runs while striking out eight and walking three on 81 pitches against the Texas Rangers.
Taking the ball for the Brewers will be right-hander Brandon Woodruff (1-0, 3.60 ERA). In his first start of the season on Saturday, Woodruff tossed five innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, yielding two earned runs on six hits while garnering five strikeouts.
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