On Saturday, the Chicago Cubs evened their three-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers with a 14-8 victory, bringing their season record to a slightly improved 2-6. Despite the win, the Cubs’ bullpen continued to struggle in relief of Cole Hamels who spun six innings of two-run baseball.
Once Hamels exited, however, the Cubs’ bullpen allowed Milwaukee to stick around, yielding six runs across three innings. Even new-comers Allen Webster and Kyle Ryan were roughed up, allowing a combined three earned runs over their one inning of work.
That lackluster effort, while nothing new for the Cubs’ bullpen in 2019, was thankfully overshadowed by an offense that plated 14 runs and pounded out 12 hits, four of which were of the home run variety. With their bullpen sporting a 9.51 ERA through the first eight games of the season, the Cubs’ offense has been one of the best in baseball.
Entering play on Sunday, the Cubs were leading all of baseball with a .307 team batting average and .399 OBP while at the same time ranking fourth in slugging percentage (.519) and third in walk rate (12.3 percent). Additionally, the Cubs find themselves in the top half of the league in opposite-field percentage, as they entered play 11th in baseball with a 27.1 percent mark.
As a testament to that offensive fire-power, the Cubs have scored at least ten runs four times this season, including 12 runs on Opening Day and the aforementioned 14 on Saturday. While many would expect a great deal of success in games where at least ten runs are scored, the Cubs are sporting a record of just 2-2 in those situations so far in 2019. Once again, that goes back to the Cubs’ struggling bullpen and starting pitching staff that has amassed a 7.87 ERA.
On Saturday, the story line once again revolved around the Cubs’ lack of effective pitching as Kyle Hendricks toed the rubber for the second time this season. In his last outing, an April 1 start against the Atlanta Braves, Hendricks watched from the mound as his defense coughed up six errors which contributed to four unearned runs in the first inning alone.
Defense aside, Hendricks was not on top of his game that day, yielding ten hits and walking three batters while throwing 95 pitches in 4.1 innings.
While there have certainly not been many instances of Hendricks struggling in back-to-back starts, that is what has transpired to kick-off the 2019 season for the young right-hander. As has been noted previously, Hendricks has struggled with the first inning of outings throughout his career.
Last season, the right-hander posted a first frame ERA of 6.82, allowing 25 earned runs across 33 total innings of work. To make matters worse, Hendricks issued 10 home runs in those 33 innings, allowing 37 hits in the first frame alone.
While one season may be too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions on a statistic like that, the numbers bear out that those first inning problems have plagued Hendricks over the course of his career. Spanning 133 career innings, Hendricks has amassed a 4.67 first inning mark, giving up 69 earned runs and 131 hits.
For perspective, Hendricks has not posted an ERA higher than 4.59 (sixth inning) in any frame during his career if you remove his four innings of work in the ninth. Besides his lofty first and sixth inning ERA’s, Hendricks has posted very good numbers in-between, sporting a 2.50 second inning ERA and 1.44 career third inning mark.
As with his start on April 1 (despite no earned runs crossing the plate), Hendricks struggled mightily in the first inning on Sunday, especially with his command. Usually known for working around the edges of the strike zone, Hendricks left way too many pitches over the plate, as evidenced by the below pitch chart.
Shown above, you can see all the balls that were left over the heart of the plate and the misses that were nowhere near the corners of the zone.
Two of those green dots in the middle of the above pitch chart represent two base hits by the top of the Milwaukee lineup. The first of those hits came off the bat of Lorenzo Cain who singled into left field on a flat change-up by Hendricks. That single, which exited Cain’s bat at 93.5 MPH, prefaced a microcosm of things that have plagued Kyle recently.
No doubt noticing that Hendricks had struggled with his command in his last outing and early against Cain, the former National League MVP wasted no time in jumping all over the right-hander. Sitting on a fastball as he dug into the box, Christian Yelich drove an 87 MPH middle-middle four-seamer from Hendricks better than 400-feet beyond the right-center field wall, putting the Brewers ahead 2-0 early.
Just a handful of pitches into the ballgame, Hendricks and the Cubs found themselves in an early hole like they have a few times already this season. Fortunately, Hendricks rebounded, sitting down six of the next seven Brewer hitters in order.
That roll from the right-hander quickly ended as the top of the Milwaukee order climbed back into the box to kick-off the bottom of the third inning. Another single off the bat of Cain jump started three straight base knocks for the one- through three-hole hitters, the latter of which plated a run, running the score to 3-0 in favor the home team.
Following that Travis Shaw single, the Brewers still had runners on first and second base without an out in the frame. Similar to the first inning, Hendricks bounced back nicely, retiring Mike Moustakas via a strikeout before inducing two fly balls to escape the inning.
Through three innings, the top three batters for the Brewers were 5-for-6 with all three RBI, a trend that was maintained into the home portion of the fourth. That time, however, it was the seven-eight-nine hitters that set up another run-scoring opportunity. A single, walk and another single loaded the bases ahead of Cain and Yelich, a less than ideal situation for any pitcher in the game.
Hendricks, however, handled the situation almost perfectly, inducing an infield pop-up to retire Cain for the first time all evening. Yelich, despite just missing a ball that caught a lot of the plate, followed with a sac-fly, driving in Ben Gamel and pushing the lead to 4-0.
While the Brewers were able to push across another run in the fourth, for Hendricks to face the top of the Milwaukee lineup with the bases loaded and no one out and hold them to just one run is an incredible feat. Hendricks’ effort on Sunday, while brief, kept his team in the ballgame on a day when he did not bring his best stuff to the mound.
The right-hander’s final line looked like this: four innings, eight hits, four earned runs, one walk and four strikeouts on 75 pitches. To go along with his traditional line, Hendricks induced eight swinging strikes on the evening, six of which came on the change-up while at the same time adding 11 called strikes (six with his sinker).
As for the offense on Saturday, there was not much to speak of for the Cubs. Into the sixth inning, the Cubs had garnered just three base hits, all singles off the Brewers right-hander Zach Davies. The Cubs also peppered in two walks, not enough to challenge the four-run lead Milwaukee had built.
With Davies tiring, however, the Cubs began to take advantage of the soft-tossing youngster. The Cubs’ sixth inning began when Anthony Rizzo reached on an E5 with Javier Baez moving him to second on a bunt single down the third base line.
Down four but with two runners on and no one out in the latter innings, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras seemed to be in prime positions to get the visiting squad back into the ballgame. While Schwarber could not live up to the billing, grounding into a 5-6-3 double play, he left a runner on third base for last year’s starting National League All-Star catcher.
Despite earning his first All-Star Game nod last season, Contreras fell off a cliff offensively in the second half of 2018. A .200 batting average and 62 wRC-plus moved Contreras back to league average at the dish as he finished the season with a 100 wRC-plus and .249 batting average. While he remained average in those metrics, Contreras’ power took a nose-dive, with his ISO falling from .223 in 2017 to .141 last year.
Much speculation has surrounded the reason for that fall-off in production but Contreras has said his lack of work ethic in 2018 had much to do with his less-than-stellar offensive performance down the stretch. In addition to that, perhaps, Contreras led the league in innings caught behind the dish in 2018, contributing to the idea that he tired late in the season.
Whatever the cause, Contreras has looked closer to his 2017 self thus far in 2019. That season, he hit 21 home runs and posted career-highs in just about every offensive category.
Through the first handful of games in 2019, however, Contreras has looked like he wants to break those career-highs with the way he is punishing the baseball. Entering play, the Cubs’ back-stop had two home runs to his credit and was sporting a .444 ISO with an .833 slugging percentage. To accompany that, Contreras had amassed a 24 percent walk rate, four percentage points better than his strikeout rate, something we are more accustomed to seeing from Rizzo.
Nevertheless, Contreras has looked very All-Star Game worthy for a Cubs team that has not gotten off to a particularly good start in 2019. On Sunday, Contreras continued adding to his hot start, belting a two-run long-ball over the right-center field wall, cutting the Brewers’ lead in half at 4-2 in the sixth.
Contreras’ home run, which came off the bat at 104.7 MPH, traveled 390-feet and further built upon his 46.2 percent hard contact rate entering play.
While Contreras got the Cubs on the board in the sixth, the remainder of the offense could do very little. In the seventh inning, the Cubs put together a one-out rally with Albert Almora reaching base on a walk and later moving to third on a Ben Zobrist single. Instead of plating those runners, however, Josh Hader was called out of the Milwaukee bullpen and quickly retired Kris Bryant and Rizzo.
As it turned out, the seventh inning would be the final rally for the Cubs’ offense on Sunday as they fell to the Brewers by a score of 4-2.
With the loss, the Cubs move to 2-7 while the Brewers improve to 8-2 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will open a three-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday at 1:20 pm at Wrigley Field. Following a nine-game road trip to open the 2019 campaign, the Cubs will finally return home for the first time since their 2-1 loss in the National League Wild Card at the hands of the Colorado Rockies.
Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jon Lester (1-0, 3.00 ERA). Despite a 6-4 loss in his last outing, Lester was solid, tossing six innings of two-run baseball while striking out seven versus three walks against the Atlanta Braves.
Opposing Lester on the mound will be Jameson Taillon (0-1, 3.46 ERA). Taillon was also brilliant in his last start, but could not guide his team to victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. Across seven innings, the right-hander yielded just one run on three hits while recording five strikeouts without walking a batter in a 5-4 loss.
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