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Cubs fall again to last-place Brewers, bring long to-do list home from trip

MILWAUKEE – After a rough-and-stumble road trip that exposed pitching-depth problems, inexperience and weaknesses in the field, the Cubs returned home with a .500 record for the first time since the fourth game of the season.

“We’re a lot better than a .500 team, absolutely,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said after Sunday’s 3-2, 11-inning loss to the last-place Brewers at Miller Park. “We know that.”

They also know it could be a lot worse at this point, given the sizeable bullpen breakdowns and growing strikeout counts by the young lineup during a May skid that reached seven losses in nine games – including four of five meetings against the worst-in-baseball Brewers.

“They are not the worst team in baseball,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Certainly not over the weekend in Milwaukee, where the Cubs struck out 16 more times Sunday, including three consecutive K’s after a walk and single to open the second inning against former Cub Matt Garza.

Certainly not the previous weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs escaped a series sweep only by the margin of a 1-0 victory in that series opener.

Sunday’s game concluded an 18-game run of games through every National League Central opponent, the Cubs finishing 9-9 after the three consecutive series losses to Milwaukee, the division-leading Cardinals and then the Brewers again.

During the just finished 2-5 road trip, the Cubs blew big leads twice in losses to the Cardinals, blew a big lead before hanging on to beat the Brewers by a run Friday, blew one-run leads in losses the last two nights, averaged 12 strikeouts a game by the hitters, and averaged an error and unearned run a game.

“We’ve made some errors, but if you look at us actually getting to baseball, I think we’ve done a really good job,” Maddon said. “The bullpen, overall, we’ve been talking about making that better. The strikeouts just hurt us in a game like today, just not moving the baseball. But then when you hit the ball over the wall, it’s not so bad, either. My point is we just have to organize our strike zone a little bit better.

“We’re seeing a lot of pitches, the fight was there. For a young, inexperienced group, I’m really happy with the way we’re playing overall.”

The youthful bent of this team was spotlighted in Sunday’s loss.

Hendricks, in his first full season in the majors, turned in one of his better starts, getting through 5 1/3 scoreless innings on 85 pitches – but not decisively enough in fifth and sixth that Maddon was confident enough to stay with him.

“He knows I’m strong enough that I can go deeper into the game,” Hendricks said. “How I’ve been throwing lately, I haven’t been getting anybody out, so obviously the trust can’t be there.”

Justin Grimm took over and finished the sixth, stranding Ryan Braun at second.

But when Maddon went to the pitching staff’s rookie, lefty Zac Rosscup, for the seventh inning, the lead disappeared in the span of two, loud at-bats from Martin Maldonado and Elian Herrera, who greeted Rosscup with back-to-back homers.

“I really felt strongly about Cup right there,” Maddon said. “That’s one thing I didn’t see coming, was a couple homers from the bottom of their batting order against him; he’d been throwing so well.”

And the rookie hitters? No. 2 hitter Kris Bryant, No. 5 hitter Jorge Soler, No. 9 hitter Addison Russell and pinch-hitter Matt Szczur combined to go 1-for-13 with eight strikeouts.

“That’s just inexperience that we’re going to keep getting better with,” Maddon said as the Cubs prepared to face a National League East-leading Mets team with the second-ranked pitching staff in baseball.

“Effort-wise I’m really, really pleased, and we’ll fight our way through it. I have no complaints about our group. We’re going to keep getting better in certain areas. …

“I’m very optimistic based on everything I’ve seen to this point.”