Pirates rain on Cubs' Opening Day parade

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Pirates rain on Cubs' Opening Day parade

Friday, April 1, 2011
Posted: 4:39 p.m. Updated: 8:08 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Distractions always rush in on Opening Day. There was the overflow media crowd, Robert Redford throwing out the first pitch and steady rain on a cold, gray afternoon.

WATCH: High expectations among Cubs fans on Opening Day

Kerry Wood came home again and received the loudest ovation during pregame introductions, wearing a No. 10 hat to honor the late Ron Santo. Manager Mike Quade took the Red Line to work on Friday morning, after so many years of riding buses from one minor-league city to the next.

Finally, baseball was back for the 41,358 fans inside Wrigley Field. Even if it was 41 degrees, summer didnt seem quite as far away.

But once the adrenaline wears off and the initial excitement goes away, this much becomes clear: Anything the Cubs hope to do this season is premised upon pitching, from the front of their rotation to the back of their bullpen.

It didnt happen in a 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ryan Dempster cruised through 4 23 scoreless innings before giving up two home runs that made the difference. By the end, large sections of Wrigley Field were almost completely empty.

No storybook ending, but I dont believe in those things anyway, Quade said. Youre going to earn what you get and we didnt earn it today. We got beat.

Dempster lost a seven-pitch at-bat against Neil Walker with two outs in the fifth inning. Walker crushed a 3-2 fastball onto Sheffield Avenue for a grand slam that gave the Pirates a 4-2 lead.

But what really burned Dempster was his 114th and final pitch sailing away, the two-out, two-run homer Andrew McCutchen drove into the left-field bleachers. That seventh-inning sequence opened Quade up to second-guessing.

Those add-on runs (usually) end up putting you away for the rest of the game, Dempster said. I still felt good and I felt strong, but I wasnt able to get the job done.

Quade visited the mound in the seventh but liked what he saw from Dempster the inning before. Dempster was still within his pitch-count range and McCutchen was going to be his last hitter anyway. The manager left the ball in the hand of his most reliable pitcher.

Hes earned the right to do that, Quade said.

Pitching depth is the obvious strength of this group, from a rotation fronted by Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza, to a bullpen built around Wood, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol.

Its supposed to mask a lineup that will struggle to score runs, make up for some shaky defense and protect the middle relievers. Opening Day almost flipped the script.

The Cubs pounded out 11 hits, but those were 11 singles and none broke open the game. The middle infield looked strong particularly the range, reactions and decision-making by 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro. James Russell, John Grabow and Jeff Samardzija combined for 2 13 innings of scoreless relief.

Sometimes we look at the whole entire season and it seems like a lot (to) carry on our shoulders, Carlos Pena said. But this group (is) wise enough (to know) how important its going to be to take a pitch at a time. As clichd as that may sound, its something that we can handle.

Lets keep pressing for every single pitch. And at the end of the day we know that we have given our best and hopefully that will be many, many wins.

Pena missed the take sign on a 3-0 pitch during one at-bat and popped out during his first game at Wrigley Field. But the new first baseman preferred to take away the positives. And pitching should keep the Cubs optimistic and hoping that tomorrow will be a better day. If nothing else, it should be interesting Zambranos up next.

It wasnt the way we liked, Aramis Ramirez said, but we got 161 to go.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

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Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."