Cubs' rookie exploits lost in late meltdown


CHICAGO -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it right, after his team lost 8-4 to the Kansas City Royals not long after tying the contest at 4-4 in the seventh inning on Friday.

“There are so many good things that happened, it’s overshadowed by two outs in the eighth inning,” Maddon stated.

Actually, it started with no outs in the eighth inning as a maddening bullpen was the Cubs' undoing once again. This time Pedro Strop walked the leadoff man just minutes after rookie Addison Russell homered off the vaunted Royals bullpen to tie the game. The Cubs had clawed back from a 4-1 deficit -- then it all unraveled.

“It’s always a bad thing when the game is on the line,” Strop said of the walk to Mike Moustakas.

Maddon added: “You have to make pitches when it's necessary, and we didn’t do that.”

How many times has he uttered that line this season? After the walk came a run-scoring double by Lorenzo Cain and not long after that a two-out, two-run error by Dexter Fowler. The floodgates were open.

“They showed why they went to the World Series last year,” Maddon said bluntly. “We showed why we’re not ready yet.”

It’s no shame in admitting who the better team is right now. The Cubs are growing while the Royals are fully formed. If not for yet another bullpen meltdown -- Edwin Jackson made an error and also gave up a run in the ninth -- there would be plenty of positives to talk about. For example, Russell is coming into his own at the plate. He added a double to go along with his home run, while Kris Bryant extended his team lead in RBIs (32) when he knocked in Russell with a double of his own.

By far the best moment for the Cubs came from Jorge Soler, who has struggled mightily in important situations with men on base. Down by three in the sixth, Maddon let him swing away on a 3-0 pitch, and Soler smacked a two-run home run that brought the Cubs within one.

But all the positives are lost when the bullpen implodes. Strop is the best example of what was so right last year on the relief staff but now has gone the other way.

“Especially after a great start,” he said. “Everything kind of changed drastically. I’m just trying to get my tempo, my rhythm, everything back on track to help the team to win because I don’t feel like I’m doing it now.”

Strop’s ERA climbed to 4.09 after giving up a hit and two walks (one intentional).

“The bullpen has been somewhat erratic,” Maddon said in the understatement of the day. “He [Moustakas] has to earn his way on right there. We have not been executing deeply into the game.”

You can’t blame these games on Maddon. There have been a few moments where he may have pulled his starter too early, but that’s only been a handful of times at most. Jake Arrieta went seven innings on Friday, so all the bullpen needed was potentially six outs considering the Cubs' offense was starting to click.

In fact, this is more on the front office, which doesn’t nearly have the depth in the bullpen it thought it had. The pen just doesn’t have any margin for error, not with two nearly wasted spots being taken by former starters -- Jackson and Travis Wood -- who barely pitch now. And then there’s Strop, who’s appeared in over half the games this season already. Extrapolate that out to 162 games.

“When you’re going to be doing that role I’ve been doing the last couple of years, you have to be able to pitch every single day,” Strop said. “I don’t think that’s an issue. I’m not making my pitches. I think that’s what it is.”

If he’s healthy then why isn’t he making his pitches? Sometimes the overuse can be taxing mentally. To be fair, the Cubs have played an inordinate amount of close games. And it doesn’t help that Neil Ramirez has been mysteriously missing for so long.

“We have to get beyond that moment,” Maddon said. “And it is mental. Nobody is going to give us anything. And you only take it through relentless execution of fundamentals and technique. And we haven’t done that.”

He included the pitching staff in that mental challenge as well. The Cubs have come up short more often than not, especially in May where their bullpen has delivered a 4.68 ERA, fourth worst in baseball. Maybe there are some new answers at Triple-A Iowa as newcomers Yoervis Medina prepares himself and newly promoted CJ Edwards arrives. Maddon wouldn’t take the bait when asked about changes.

“Whomever is here, that’s what my focus is,” he said. “My job is not to evaluate Triple-A guys I never see. My job is to try and get the best out of the people here. There’s a ton of talent here. We just need to get them over the hump in different moments.”

It might not be his job to evaluate but it’s not against any baseball etiquette to ask for some help, right? He undoubtedly has.

“That stuff is always a daily conversation,” Maddon said.

It’s time for the front office to deliver some new arms to the Cubs' manager, either from Triple-A or elsewhere. Otherwise there will be more days where the positives are overshadowed.