Bullpen struggles again as Cubs get swept by Pirates

Manager Joe Maddon had a quick summary of why the Cubs were swept by the Pirates.

“That’s two days in a row we’ve just got to do a better job in the latter part of the game protecting leads,” Maddon said.

On Saturday, Jake Arrieta and a four-run first gave the Cubs a good chance to beat the Pirates. On Sunday, Jon Lester threw seven scoreless innings and was in line for his first victory of the season after Tommy La Stella’s go-ahead double in the seventh.

But like the day before, when the Pirates scored five in the seventh, the bullpen imploded in a 6-1 loss that dropped the Cubs’ record to 6-6. The bullpen allowed three runs in the eighth and three in the ninth.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 16: Joe Maddon pats Hector Rondon on the back as Koji Uehara looks on after they gave up a combined three runs on Sunday. | Getty Images

After taking the lead, the Cubs turned to Koji Uehara (0-1), who allowed two walks, a double and Jordy Mercer’s game-tying single.

Uehara, who was charged with two earned runs, entered the game with a 20-inning scoreless streak, the longest active run among relievers. He pitched for the third time in four days, but Maddon didn’t believe that was why the 42-year-old struggled.

“You’re always going to look for excuses or reasons why something didn’t work out,” Maddon said. “His stuff was exactly the same as it was [Saturday] with a different result. It’s just going to happen sometimes. I have a lot of faith in the guy.”

With the bases loaded, Hector Rondon replaced Uehara and got Starling Marte to ground to Javy Baez, who threw home for a force out. Andrew McCutchen then hit a very soft grounder to Anthony Rizzo, who also threw home. But Willson Contreras couldn’t keep his foot on the plate, letting pinch runner Alen Hanson score for a 2-1 Pirates lead. The call stood after a review.

“[Rondon] almost got out of the entire mess,” Maddon said. “The play at the plate, it’s just one of those things when the play stands. It’s kind of frustrating, but that’s the way it works.”

The Cubs gave the Pirates a third run when David Freese flew out to right. Mercer, who was going to hold at third, scored when Jason Heyward’s throw went up the line and got away from Contreras.

Any reasonable chance the Cubs had to rally was wiped away in the ninth, when Justin Grimm allowed Adam Frazier’s three-run homer.

“We didn’t score enough runs to really give our bullpen breathing room,” Ben Zobrist said. “A lot of that falls on the offense. Our [pitchers have] pitched pretty well. We’ll keep coming back at it tomorrow and get back to scoring runs.”

As Zobrist said, the Cubs’ offense struggled. It left eight men on base and scored just one unearned run off Jameson Taillon, who allowed seven hits and three walks in seven innings.

“We did so many good things. We did not get the hit,” Maddon said. “I totally agree with that. More of our problem than anything is not getting a clutch hit and not holding a lead in a latter part of the game.”

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