MILWAUKEE — Before Saturday’s game between the beleaguered Cubs and the hot-starting Brewers at Miller Park, one Chicago media member talking to Cubs manager Joe Maddon casually suggested the Cubs “win a game and give us a different story to cover.”
That wasn’t the intent, the reporter insisted after the surprise and laughter died down. No, really – no offense.
But after six consecutive losses, 11 errors in seven games and two roster moves before the home opener to try to patch a leaky bullpen, how else could anyone be expected to take it?
Heck, by the time three more runs crossed the plate against his bullpen in the eighth inning Saturday, even Maddon was caught on camera channeling Cub Nation: “I’m so tired of this sh–.”
But then it stopped. The Brewers finally ran out of outs. And not even six more runs surrendered by the bullpen could overcome Cole Hamels’ strong start and the relentless bottom of the Cubs’ order in a 14-8 victory that snapped the Cubs’ longest losing streak in two seasons.
“In the infamous words of Larry Bowa, we needed that like oxygen,” Maddon said afterward.
It’s still just eight games into a six-month season, but the seven-game “worst-case scenario” for pitching and fielding was in the crosshairs of team president Theo Epstein even before the Cubs took the field trying to cut into a 5½-game deficit the first-place Brewers already had laid on them.
“It’s got our attention and then some, and we know we need to change the script,” said Epstein, who demoted struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. and put reliever Mike Montgomery on the injured list before the game.
“It’s important to do that pretty soon,” he added. “In a really competitive league and an even more competitive division you don’t want to dig yourself too great a hole.”
• Cubs option Carl Edwards Jr. to minors, put Mike Montgomery (lat) on IL
• Brewers rock Crew-killer Jose Quintana, send Cubs to sixth straight loss
Or to still be in the hole when it starts to get filled up again – which was looking all too possible, even this early, for a team off to its worst seven-game start since 1997.
“It’s not the start that any of us wanted,” Epstein said, “and we’re sorry we’re putting our fans through this.”
Consider the Cubs have scored 10 or more runs in four games so far, and won two of them. And that even when they won Saturday, their bullpen ERA climbed nearly a full point, to 9.51.
Maddon, whose lame-duck contract status figures to be a storyline all season, was asked before the game how much pressure he felt to turn things around, given his contract status. It was already the second time he’d been asked about his contract this season. And it was April 6.
“Zero,” Maddon said. “Zero. The last four years have been pretty good. If I have to rely on a week’s worth of baseball games, that’s a bad process.”
Maybe Hamels’ strong six innings of pitching and the hitting heroics of Jason Heyward and Victor Caratini from the seventh and eighth spots in the lineup Saturday will get Maddon at least to Monday’s home opener before he’s asked about his contract for a third time.
“I’m willing to shoulder the blame,” he said, “but I really have zero concern.”
It’s not like anyone who has watched the games could reasonably blame Maddon for the results.
And Epstein said it’s also wrong to blame two other common targets of first-week finger-pointing: first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and megabucks Ricketts ownership that capped payroll spending before bullpen needs could be fully addressed.
“There’s always a search for scapegoats when you get off to a tough start,” Epstein said, calling Hottovy “a big part of the solution” and defending ownership. “It’s not a resource problem. If people have a problem with the allocation of the resources, then that’s me. And it has been every since I got here.
“Ultimately, it’s all my responsibility, how we play on the field, the talent that we have, the direction we’re headed.”