Chicago Cubs

Joe Maddon explains bullpen decisions after another late meltdown by Cubs

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon explains bullpen decisions after another late meltdown by Cubs

The Cubs may be currently embarking on an "Easy Rider" themed road trip, but it certainly has not been an easy ride for Joe Maddon lately.

The Cubs bullpen melted down again Sunday, sending the team out to the West Coast after a 2-4 homestand against NL contenders in the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Carl Edwards Jr. had a particularly rough stay at Wrigley, allowing six runs while recording only five outs over three appearances.

The biggest blow came Sunday afternoon when Edwards entered with the Cubs up one, Bryce Harper on first and one out. Edwards proceeded to give up a double to Ryan Zimmerman, intentionally walked Daniel Murphy and hit Anthony Rendon to force home a run.

Matt Wieters then stepped to the plate and deposited Edwards' offering into the bushes in center field and just like that, the Cubs were staring up at an 8-4 deficit.

"CJ right there, I liked him on those two guys," Maddon said. "We just gotta get him back to being normal because he's a really big part of our success.

"...We had another bad eighth inning, which we gotta get away from that. Even though we did not play well prior to that, we still did have the lead, we had the right guys on the mound and it just did not play out."

Maddon spent a lot of time this weekend talking about his bullpen arms, particularly Edwards. Managing his relievers takes up most of his daily focus, Maddon has said before and Sunday was part of the reason why with closer Wade Davis down after throwing 30 pitches in a rocky save Saturday.

Hector Rondon would've been the Cubs closer Sunday had the game gotten to that point.

Maddon wants his relievers to get better at throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count.

On the six-game homestand, Cubs relievers walked 12 batters in 19.1 innings. They also gave up 14 runs (12 earned) in that span, good for a 5.59 ERA.

Maddon believes Edwards is trying too hard to guide the baseball right now instead of letting it go. The dynamic 25-year-old reliever came into the day allowing only 3.9 hits per nine innings. Opponents were hitting .132 off him, the lowest mark off any big-league reliever with at least 40 innings.

But Edwards has also walked 30 batters in 44.2 innings this season.

"It looks like he's kinda battling himself a little bit," said Sunday's starter Jon Lester. "This game is all built around confidence. He may be doubting himself a little bit right now. Nobody in that clubhouse is doubting him in that role or anything else. Obviously, our manager and our team is right behind him, otherwise we wouldn't keep running him out there.

"He's the guy in the right situation and he'll get back to being himself. It's just a matter of pitching. Especially as a reliever, it kinda gets magnified, because you come in in dirty innings and wheels can start spinning a little bit and it can speed up on you. You can rush through some pitches.

"When he got the bases cleared, it was just kinda like back to old CJ. Just a matter of getting him out there, getting him pitching and getting that confidence back."

Maddon's goal Sunday was to use Edwards in a high-leverage spot and try to get that confidence built back up. Ideally, Mike Montgomery would've gotten Harper out, then Edwards comes in just for Zimmerman, gets him out and the Cubs head to the ninth with the lead intact.

When Harper reached, Maddon still envisioned a good scenario for Edwards, hoping the right-hander would get Zimmerman to roll over on one for a double play, allowing Edwards to walk off the mound feeling good about himself.

Of course, it didn't play out that way.

As for any other guys in that spot, Maddon was keeping Rondon back to close and Koji Uehara was up in the bullpen, but he's struggled to find consistency this season and Maddon also was protecting against the possibility of extra innings with a limited relief corps.

The end result is a pair of series losses to rival contenders, Maddon talking for six minutes about his bullpen decisions and the Cubs searching for answers.

"We can play with anybody, we just gotta finish it off," Maddon said. "We're still like the second ranked bullpen in the National League. We're still really good and our guys nailed it in the first half.

"For whatever reason, in the second half, our starters have come on and the bullpen guys have taken a little bit of a hit. But I like the names. They're not too tired - I think they're in good shape - we have really good matchups, we've added Justin Wilson to the mix. I like it.

"It's just one of those unfortunate moments today, but I wanna keep their confidence going. Like I said with a guy like CJ, get him in, get him out with some success and then eventually get back to who they are."

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."