Cubs bullpen nearly squanders Lester's strong start
Jon Lester added to the list of Cubs quality starts on Monday, but the bullpen nearly delivered an epic implosion on Monday in Cincinnati, before hanging on for an 8-7 win.
The Cubs jumped to a 6-0 lead in the second inning and were up 8-1 after the top of the seventh. But five different relievers gave up runs and Craig Kimbrel's first save opportunity was disastrous. Kimbrel faced six batters in the ninth inning, giving up 2 runs on 4 walks and a hit batsman.
"You just realize how little control you have over there and thank goodness for the offense tonight," manager David Ross said after the game via Zoom call. "I think there are times in a season where the offense picks up the pitching and then there will definitely be a time when the pitching picks up the offense."
Finally a heroic figure stepped out of the bullpen in the form of Jeremy Jeffress. He came in with one out, the bases loaded and the lead down to 8-7. But he got a 3-2 swinging strikeout on Phillip Ervin, then coaxed a liner to center from Joey Votto to the end the game.
Obviously, no one expected the Cubs to even use their closer in this game, let alone take him out with the bases loaded.
"I always stay locked in from sixth inning on, just in case things like that happen," Jeffress said. "I've been in predicaments like that in the past. I kept focused and stayed in the game.
Jeffress, 32, is in his first season with the Cubs and 10th in the majors. He was with Milwaukee the past three seasons, so he's faced NL Central rival Votto plenty of times.
"Votto's a veteran, he likes to put the bat to the ball, take his walks, takes his hit by pitches" Jeffress said. "At the end of the day you have to a challenge a guy like that, so he can know that you're not afraid of coming right at him."
So Lester got the win after pitching 5 innings and not allowing a hit. He had 1 strikeout, 1 walk and threw 76 pitches in his season debut.
"I definitely was losing my legs in the fifth there a little bit," Lester said. "I think Rossy could tell, Willy (Contreras) could tell. All in all, getting to that point felt great. I was glad I got to that point, even though my pitch count was fairly manageable."
The no-hitter didn't last long after Lester left. Dan Winkler stepped from the bullpen first and walked the first two men he faced. After Ross hurried back to the mound to make another change, Rowan Wick surrendered the Reds' first hit, an RBI single to Jesse Winkler, no relation to Dan.
Reds catching prospect Tyler Stephenson later homered in his first major league at bat, while Ross used Duane Underwood, Ryan Tepera and James Norwood out of the pen leading into the ninth.
With Kimbrel, Ross pointed out this was his first appearance of the season and everyone needs time to get in a good rhythm.
"I chalk that up to a lot of rust," Ross said. "Six days for a closer, any bullpen guy. You've seen a lot of the guys first time out haven't been very sharp. We want to make these big decisions, but a lot of these guys are first or second time in the game. Not trying to make excuses for anybody, but we've got to get a little bit of leash. This is a really unique situation we're dealing with.
"I think he didn't trust his fastball enough for me. I think he can trust that a little more. It was electric. Get him back to being who he is. I want him to trust himself. A big thing about baseball is confidence. When you get that confidence, get a couple good outings under your belt, things seem to roll a little bit better, you trust yourself a little bit more."
There shouldn't have been much drama to this game since the Cubs got off to a fast start. To start the game, Kris Bryant was hit by a pitch and Anthony Rizzo walked. Two outs later, Contreras and Steven Souza Jr. hit back-to-back doubles, driving in 3 runs. David Bote added an RBI single to make it 4-0.
In the second, Javy Baez delivered an RBI double and Rizzo scored on a passed ball to push the lead to 6-0. Rizzo cranked his third home run of the season in the sixth, and Bote added an RBI double in the seventh.