Jon Lester: Emphasis on fast start has Cubs ‘pressing’ during opening stretch

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Steve Cishek after walking the first three batters of the eighth and leaving the game.

ATLANTA — We know, we know: It’s a small sample size.

The Cubs have played only five games.

“I don’t think anyone’s panicking,” Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said.

That’s probably a good thing for the team.

But it doesn’t change the remarkable fact that it took only those five games for the Cubs to fall four games back in a division that got a lot better since last year.

Or that Wednesday night’s 6-4 loss to the Braves was the result of another bullpen meltdown fed by another bunch of walks — two issues that were questions even before the season opened.

“The average fan of every major-league team is worried about the bullpen,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We’ve had one of the best bullpens in baseball the last four years, and there’s probably been a grand -total of about three days where people haven’t been worried about the bullpen.

“That’s just the way it works because you don’t usually notice when they’re getting outs on a consistent basis.”

You especially don’t notice it when five games in, the bullpen has blown all three save chances — twice in the eighth and once in the seventh — and when the pitching staff overall has walked 35 in 41⅓ innings.

Cishek, last year’s bullpen star, walked the first three batters of the eighth with a 4-2 lead Wednesday. And when Randy Rosario took over and allowed Johan Camargo’s bases-clearing double, a strong start by Jon Lester and rocket-launched home run by Willson Contreras were wasted.

“I don’t know what happened,” Cishek said. “I was focused, ready to go. I was fighting myself mechanically.”

The Cubs have lost four in a row, including a six-error fiasco Monday. They didn’t lose three in a row last year until May.


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“We’re all from top to bottom pressing a little bit too much right now,” said Lester, who said he thinks it’ll turn around quickly. “I think we put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start that it’s kind of hanging over our heads a little bit right now.

“We just need to get back to being us.”

Lester said “nobody’s giving up on anybody” in the bullpen. And Epstein and manager Joe Maddon said they expect results to normalize as they get a few more games into the season.

“These guys are going to keep going out there,” he said. “I have a ton of faith in all of them. It was precipitated by a guy that’s normally lights-out.”

When reminded of the urgency theme for 2019, Epstein pointed out that emphasis involved “attitude and preparation” and that he has been happy with that much, even through the struggles.

“Nothing we were talking about this offseason, or that has become this narrative that I hope will die really soon [as we get] into the flow of the season, relates to [an] outcome on a particular night,” he said. “It’s baseball.”

Even as the very areas of greatest question going into the season have cost the club early, Epstein withholds judgment and certainly any temptation to make moves already.

“Every team has questions coming in, and they’re answered by how you play,” he said. “Sure, you play a game like Monday night, you deserve to be questioned. I think the answers will come with how we play going forward.”

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