Chicago Cubs baseball is back at Wrigley Field after a nine-game road trip to begin the 2019 season. For the first time since the Colorado Rockies celebrated a 2-1 victory in the National League wild card game, the Cubs took the field behind their workhorse pitcher, Jon Lester.
Lester has been one of the lone bright spots for the Cubs’ pitching staff through the first week-plus of the season, working to a 3.00 ERA across his two starts spanning 12 innings. His colleagues, however, have not fared as well, posting an MLB-high 7.51 ERA entering play on Monday, a number that is almost a full higher run than the next closest team that happens to be the Chicago White Sox.
While Lester has continued to lead the starting rotation and pitching staff as a whole, his outing on Monday garnered head lines for a reason that will make fans Cubs fans cringe. A 65 degree day at Wrigley represents a perfect day for players and pitchers alike, especially when staked to a large lead early in the game.
Following a six-run second inning which we will circle back to, Lester was pulled after firing only a handful of pitches in the top half of the third. The injury, which is being classified as left hamstring tightness by the club, appeared to happen when the big lefty slide into home plate during the Cubs’ two-out rally in the previous inning.
As stated by Len and J.D. on the home broadcast, tightness is better than a strain, especially when it happens to the ace of your pitching staff. Immediately after Monday’s game, there is no reason to think Lester will miss an extended period, but if he does, one start could be the extent of his missed time.
Throughout his career, Lester has been one of the more durable pitchers in the game as he has made at least 30 starts every year dating back to 2008 when he was a member of the Boston Red Sox.
Prior to his injury, Lester looked to have his best stuff of the young season, sitting down four Pittsburgh Pirates via strikeouts in just two innings. Of his 45 total pitches, Lester garnered four swinging strikes, mixing in another 10 called strikes, with seven coming on his four-seam fastball.
Lester’s final line looked like this: two innings, three hits, zero earned runs, one walk and four strikeouts on 45 pitches.
Offensively, the Cubs’ offense once again came to play on Monday. Prior to the home opener, the Cubs had pushed across at least 10 runs in a game four times, but held a record of just 2-2 in those contests.
Against a Pittsburgh pitching staff that found themselves in the top-five in team ERA (2.76) entering play, the Cubs’ offense was able to satisfy 40,000-plus screaming fans with a blowout win for their first at Wrigley Field in 2019.
In the aforementioned second inning, the Cubs began with two quick outs from Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. With two outs and no one on base, the run-scoring percentage is no doubt pretty low. However, once two outs were registered, the Cubs sent nine batters to the plate and 11 total in the frame.
That rally, which heavily contributed to a Cub victory, was kicked off on an E6 by Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman. While the youngster was able to field the ball cleanly, he whiffed on the throw to first base, allowing Daniel Descalso to reach. Batting out of the seven-hole on Monday, Descalso was set to be followed by Jason Heyward and then the pitcher’s spot, occupied by Lester.
With Heyward seeing the ball really well to begin the season, Clint Hurdle decided to intentionally walk the veteran lefty batter, bringing Lester to the plate with two runners on and two outs. For his career, and more specifically this season, Lester has not been an automatic out. A career .096 hitter with a .285 OPS, Lester was sporting a much better 1.250 mark as he strode into the box on Monday.
That number was amassed in his last outing against the Atlanta Braves when the veteran reached base three times, including two walks while registering an RBI. Looking to add to that total, Lester flipped a back-door slider from Pirates’ starter Jameson Taillon into the left-center field gap, plating the first run of the ballgame and giving the Cubs an early 1-0 lead.
Lester’s reach was followed by four additional reaches by Cub hitters, including three singles and a hit-by-pitch. Ben Zobrist‘s single, which immediately followed Lester’s, drove in two runs and kept the veteran utility-man hot to kick-off the new campaign.
Perhaps the best hit in the inning, however, came from Javier Baez. Already up 4-0, Baez added a bloop single into shallow left field that extended the lead to 5-0. While that may not sound too exciting right away, I encourage you to watch the below clip.
Báez off the bounce. 😱 pic.twitter.com/gFbtDKCZL4
— MLB (@MLB) April 8, 2019
That’s right, on a down-and-away slider, Baez just stuck the bat out and flipped a ball into the air. Following the swing, Baez’s hands came off his lumber, adding to the illusion that the youngster just threw the bat at the ball.
How ever “El Mago” was able to get the bat on the ball, he kept a big inning for the Cubs alive that was highlighted by three errors charged to the Pirates’ shortstop. The first one allowed the rally to get underway, but the next two extended the Cubs’ half inning, allowing Schwarber to reach base on a ground ball, running the score to 6-0 in favor of the home team.
As the game deepened and the Cubs bullpen took over, the offense continued to pad what already was a healthy advantage. In the third, the bottom of the order once again lifted the team as Descalso reached base for the second time, sending a double down the left field line. A free pass to Heyward and a sac-bunt so successful that all runners were safe, loaded the bases for the top portion of the lineup.
In what admittedly could have been a bigger inning, the Cubs were able to walk away with two additional runs after a Zobrist ground out and a Bryant double, running the score to 8-0 Cubs.
For Bryant, that double has to feel good as he has been struggling to barrel the baseball of late. Prior to play on Monday, Bryant was sporting a hard contact rate of 32.1 percent, a number that mirrored his effort in 2017. With that being said, that mark is more than eight percentage points lower than the 40.3 percent hard contact rate posted during Bryant’s MVP-caliber season of 2016.
To go along with Bryant’s down hard contact rate, the youngster has struggled with the punch out, posting a 25.6 percent strikeout rate prior to Monday. That number was countered with a lackluster 9.3 percent walk rate, a figure that is way too low for a guy with an 11.9 percent career mark in that statistic.
Now finished with the bad numbers for Bryant, there is one area where the former MVP has excelled in thus far in 2019. Entering play, Bryant had amassed a 25 percent opposite-field contact percentage, which, if it holds, would represent a new career high for the 27-year-old. Watching Bryant live, one can see his concerted effort to drive the ball to the opposite field.
While that has only shone through in flashes so far in 2019, Bryant’s double in the third inning on Monday was into the right field corner, a rocket that came off the bat at 94.6 MPH, adding to his 95.7 MPH line out to the shortstop earlier in the game.
Up eight runs into the middle innings of the game, Schwarber was able to add a two-run home run in the home half of the fifth, pushing the lead to 10-0 Cubs. Like Bryant, Schwarber has been focused on shooting the ball into left and left-center field, even reverting back to his college batting stance. Even before his long-ball on Monday, Schwarber was sporting a 44 percent opposite-field contact percentage, almost double his career 24.1 percent mark.
To say it would be a game-changing if Schwarber, Contreras and Bryant all begin using the opposite field more would be an understatement. Throughout this young season, we have already seen what Contreras can do when he is fresh and hungry to produce. In the bigger picture, when this Cubs offense is clicking, rattling off 10 runs is like scoring three or four for a regular team.
The biggest issue contributing to the Cubs’ slow start, however, has been the bullpen. With an 8.37 ERA entering play, the ‘pen was tasked with collecting seven innings worth of outs on Monday, a tall order for a struggling group.
Struggles aside, the Cubs’ bullpen was about as good as it could get in relief of Lester. Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario and Pedro Strop combined for those seven innings of work, allowing a total of four hits while striking out eight Pirate batters versus just two walks.
Riding that clutch performance from the bullpen guys and a red-hot offense, the Cubs were able to open this home stand with a 10-0 victory over the Pirates.
With the win, the Cubs move to 3-7 while Pittsburgh falls to 5-4 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Pirates on Wednesday at 7:05 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Yu Darvish (0-1, 8.10 ERA). In two outings this season, Darvish has struggled, tossing a combined 6.2 innings while allowing seven hits and six earned runs. Perhaps more alarming than the runs allowed has been the amount of walks issued by the veteran. Over his two starts, Darvish has already racked up 11 free passes versus just six strikeouts.
Opposing Darvish on the mound Wednesday will be right-hander Jordan Lyles (0-0, 0.00 ERA). Lyles has made just one start thus far in 2019, an April 4 outing against the Cincinnati Reds. In that start, the 28-year-old was solid, allowing three hits and zero earned runs across five innings while striking out two batters and walking three.
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