The first six games of the 2019 season have been ones to forget for the Chicago Cubs, with, of course, the exception of their 12-4 Opening Day victory over the Texas Rangers. Nevertheless, the Cubs have struggled mightily with their pitching staff, both in terms of the starting rotation and bullpen.
Entering play on Friday, the Cubs were sporting a 7.30 team ERA, a number good enough to lead the majors by more than a quarter run. Additionally, the Cub pitchers have racked up the highest walk rate in baseball thus far in the young season, amassing a 16.9 percent mark, better than two percentage points higher than the next closest team.
As you can image with a high ERA and walk rate, opposing batters are teeing off on Cubs pitching so far in 2019, averaging better than .300 (highest in baseball) with a hard contact rate of 42.4 percent (third highest in baseball), hardly numbers that would lead to success.
Following a sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, the Cubs opened division play on Friday with the first of a three-game set at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Unlike the Cubs, the Brewers found themselves atop the division entering play with a 6-1 record and solid 3.57 staff ERA. What the Brewers have struggled with, however, is scoring runs, posting a 95 team wRC-plus prior to Friday, good enough for 17th in the majors. To go along with that, Milwaukee found themselves hitting just .233 as a team with an elevated strikeout rate of 23.6 percent.
With left-hander Jose Quintana on the mound for the Cubs, and the Brewers yet to find their stride offensively, Friday seemed like as good a day as any to get the 2019 campaign back on track. Over the course of his career, the veteran southpaw Quintana has earned a reputation as a pitcher who loves facing the Brewers.
Across 11 starts spanning four seasons for Quintana, the left-hander owned a sparkling 6-2 record and 1.62 ERA while striking out 67 batters versus just 15 walks in 72.1 total innings against Milwaukee. That elite ERA includes a 2.13 mark over 42.1 innings against the Brewers last season spanning seven starts. In those outings, “Q” allowed just 29 hits and 10 walks, working to an 0.921 WHIP, solidifying his 0.843 career mark when facing Milwaukee.
Even with Jon Lester having already made his second start of the season, Quintana had yet to pitch out of the rotation, tossing four innings in relief during an 8-6 loss against Texas. In that outing, Quintana struck out eight batters, allowing just two unearned runs and protecting a slim lead before the latter portions of the bullpen blew the contest late.
On Friday, however, it was the left-hander’s turn to pile on to all the things that have gone wrong for the Cubs this season. While the Brewers had yet to make much noise offensively prior to facing Quintana and the Cubs, their lineup featured the reigning National League MVP batting second with veteran Ryan Braun following in the three-hole.
In the first inning against the Cubs, it did not take long for the Milwaukee offense to come to full vigor. Four straight reaches greeted Quintana who was immediately forced to pitch out of the stretch following a lead-off single. That single from Lorenzo Cain quickly bit the Cubs’ southpaw as he swapped second base and was knocked in on a Christian Yelich RBI double into the left-center field gap.
Not long removed from committing six errors in a lopsided loss to the Braves, the Cubs once again fell into their sloppy defensive ways on Friday. Braun followed Yelich’s RBI double with a ringing single through the middle of the diamond into center field that exited the bat at 107.3 MPH. Having already botched a similar ball earlier in the season, Jason Heyward seemed to have a bearing on the ball only to have it skip by him, resulting in an extra base for Braun.
The second error of the inning by the visiting team was also a replica of a previous lapse in judgement, this time by Willson Contreras. On a foul ball by Jesus Aguilar, Contreras reached his glove out a little too far, coming into contact with Aguilar’s bat resulting in catcher’s interference, a reach for the batter and an E2.
Luckily for the Cubs, unlike in their contest against the Braves, their errors did not come back to haunt them in the first frame as Quintana induced a 6-4-3 double play and strikeout to close the inning.
Despite being down a pair of runs after just one inning, the feeling was fairly positive considering the damage could have been much worst without the double play from Mike Moustakas. Instead of allowing his team time to scrap their way back into the game, Quintana continued to dig a hole for his offense to climb out of.
A lead-off strikeout moved Quintana’s early total to two on the evening. That, however, was the bright spot of the frame for the southpaw as the next trio of Brewer hitters reached base. Of those three, one was the opposing pitcher, Brandon Woodruff, who earned a walk and later moved to second on a wild pitch.
Staring at a bases loaded situation with Yelich in the box, Quintana’s pitch count continued to steadily raise. Despite getting behind the current NL MVP 2-0, running his count to 10 consecutive balls after back-to-back four-pitch walks, Quintana got Yelich to bounce into a fielder’s choice with a 92 MPH fastball down in the zone.
Considering how the previous inning had transpired for Quintana, getting Yelich to ground out (despite a run scoring) felt like a win for the visiting team. Those feelings quickly exited the Cub faithful who made the trip to Miller Park as Braun cleaned up the two remaining runners on base with a towering three-run home run into left field.
The pitch, which was an 1-0 fastball that the southpaw left letter-high over the plate, cleared Braun’s bat at 103 MPH and landed some 408-feet from home plate, pushing Milwaukee’s lead out to 6-0 just two innings into the contest.
Without much help from a bullpen that entered play sporting a 9.70 ERA, Joe Maddon tasked Quintana with getting as many outs as possible to ensure the bullpen is rested of the remainder of the series.
That strategy did not work out for the veteran manager as the Brewers continued pounding Quintana. One out back-to-back home runs built Milwaukee’s largest lead of the game at 8-0 in the home half of the third, balls that came off the bat well north of 100 MPH.
To say Quintana was not sharp on Friday would be an understatement. In his career against the Brewers, spanning an aforementioned 72.1 innings dating back to 2012, the southpaw had issued just five home runs, all of which came in 2018 over a total of seven starts. Across just three innings on Friday, however, Quintana allowed three home runs, yielding eight earned runs, just two short of the total allowed all last season against the Brewers.
As always, however, there was at least one positive for the southpaw on Friday. While his outing totaled just 76 pitches, Quintana was able to induce 10 swinging strikes, including four on the 18 curve-balls he tossed. The lefty added nine called strikes and topped out at 93.3 MPH on his fastball.
His final like looked like this: three innings, eight hits, eight earned runs, three walks and three strikeouts on 76 pitches.
Above, we talked about Milwaukee’s offense and what they brought to the table on Friday. However, entering play, the Cubs actually brought with them one of the games best offensive units, at least early in the season.
The Cubs’ .307 batting average paced the majors while their .398 OBP and 134 wRC-plus also placed in the top-five. After scoring 29 runs against the Rangers, however, the Cubs’ offense has returned back to earth in a sense after they were shut out by the Braves and managed just four ninth inning runs on Thursday.
Nonetheless, the Cubs’ offense has been one of the few shining beacons in a tough start to the season. Lead by an opposite-field approach that never seemed to take hold in 2018, the Cubs can be spotted driving the ball into the gaps and the other way on a semi-regular basis.
Down an eight-spot and not yet halfway through Friday’s contest, the offense began the long journey of coming back. Immediately following the Brewers’ two-run third inning, the Cubs kicked off the fourth with a Kyle Schwarber opposite-field single. A hit-by-pitch later and the Cubs all of a sudden had ducks on pond with no outs and their seven-hole hitter digging in at the plate.
That man on Friday was Daniel Descalso was drew the assignment at second base, representing a portion of the Cubs’ depth at that position. Prior to joining the Cubs on a two-year, $5 million deal last winter, Descalso put was able to put together a rather solid offensive campaign in 2018.
Having earned a reputation as a defensive-minded utility player, Descalso owns a career OPS-plus of just 85 and has been an above average hitter just once in his nine-year career. That above average season came at a good time, in 2018, as the lefty notched a 106 OPS-plus as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
To go along with his career high OPS-plus, Descalso racked up career marks in slugging percentage (.436), OBP (.353), home runs (13) and RBI (57), helping him pull down his current deal with the Cubs.
Looking at the trend line of Descalso’s career, the veteran has began to tap into more power as he ages, a sign that he may be buying the launch angle revolution that has swept baseball in recent years. On Friday, Descalso displayed his new-found power-stroke sending a Woodruff offering into the right-field seats to get the Cubs on the board.
His three-run blast, which came off the bat at 104.9 MPH, kicked off a four-run fourth for the Cubs. That fourth run came courtesy of a Kris Bryant double into the left-center field gap that plated Jason Heyward and cut the Brewers’ lead in half at 8-4.
Contreras followed that offensive outburst with a solo home run to left-center field, briefly trimming the home team’s lead to three.
I say briefly because by this time, the Cubs’ bullpen had taken over control of the game. As we have found so far this season, when that happens, good things usually do not follow. It was more of the same on Friday as the Brewers answered the Cubs five runs with two in the fifth and three more in the seventh, once again stretching the lead to eight runs, this time at 13-5.
Perhaps just for good measure, Jason Heyward tacked a two-run home run to his stat line in the eighth inning on Friday for his first of the season, giving the Cubs their sixth and seventh runs of the game. A ninth inning rally in which the Cubs put together three straight hits, and plated two runs on productive outs further cut the Brewer lead to 13-10.
Despite being down a bundle of runs late, the Cubs’ offense did not throw in the towel on Friday, pushing across five runs between the eighth and ninth while pounding out a total of 10 runs on 12 hits. Unfortunately, Cub pitchers issued 13 runs on 15 hits in a 13-10 defeat.
In relief of Quintana, three different Cub relievers issued runs on Friday. Brad Brach and Carl Edwards Jr. were each tagged with one over a total of two innings while Brandon Kintzler yielded four hits and three earned runs during his inning of work.
With their sixth straight loss, the Cubs move to 1-6 on the season while the Brewers improve to 7-1.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Brewers on Saturday at 6:10 pm at Miller Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be left-hander Cole Hamels (0-0, 9.00 ERA). In his first outing of the 2019 campaign, Hamels was roughed up by his former team in Texas, allowing five earned runs on six hits across five innings, including a grand slam to Delino DeShields. To go along with that, Hamels issued three walks and struck out four Ranger batters.
Taking the ball for the Brewers will be right-hander Corbin Burnes (0-0, 7.20 ERA). Burnes, like Hamels, was also hit around in his first start of the new season. Against the St. Louis Cardinals, Burnes yielded four runs on six hits over five innings of work, allowing three home runs while striking out an eye-popping 12 batters versus just one walk.
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