Cubs bullpen starting to feel lack of support from starters
MILWAUKEE -- Having the best bullpen in MLB certainly gives the Cubs hope for a playoff run.
But the starting pitchers have not been cooperating.
Zach Davies lasted just 4 innings on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, which has been a recurring theme for the Cubs. Their starting pitchers have gone 6 innings in just five of the last 15 games, and no one has gone more than 6 since Davies on June 13 against St. Louis.
The Cubs didn't go quietly but dropped to 5 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central with a 2-1 loss. The Cubs went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, put seven runners on base in the final three innings and couldn't push the tying run across.
The game ended with pinch hitter Jose Lobaton grounding to first base, tumbling over Milwaukee closer Josh Hader, who stumbled while covering the bag, and suffering an apparent shoulder injury. Cubs manager David Ross said neither Kris Bryant (side) or Anthony Rizzo (back) was available to hit.
"We're in that ballgame with two of our starters on the bench," Ross said. "We're not playing bad baseball, we're just a little short right now. That second tier, those guys are grinding. As bad as it's gone, we're in baseball games. It's just not going our way right now."
In the seventh inning, St. Charles native Jake Cousins came on for the Brewers with a runner on first and two outs. Cousins walked Willson Contreras, hit Javy Baez, then struck out Ian Happ with the bases loaded.
Davies gave up just 2 hits but threw 84 pitches in four innings and left trailing 2-1. Both runners who scored for the Brewers stole second base on the way to crossing the plate.
The Cubs pulled into a 1-1 tie in the fourth with a leadoff triple by Baez and RBI double from Patrick Wisdom. The Brewers got that run right back in the bottom of the inning.
A night like Monday, when Ryan Tepera and Trevor Megill gave up 10 runs in the eighth inning, seemed inevitable. Maybe a little extreme, but still inevitable. The performance dropped the Cubs below San Diego for best bullpen ERA in the majors.
Cubs relievers rose to the occasion Tuesday, with Brad Wieck, Keegan Thompson, Dan Winkler and newcomer Adam Morgan combined to throw 4 scoreless innings with just 1 walk allowed.
Still, a question for the second half of the season is how can the Cubs continue their bullpen dominance if the starters continue to be shaky?
"I think you rotate out optional pieces when you have them and try to keep those guys fresh," Ross said. "With the amount of success we've had out of that bullpen, you're going to have nights like last night."
The Cubs got to work on adding fresh arms right away. They sent Megill back to Triple A Iowa, placed Tepera on the 10-day injured list with a calf strain, and brought up Tommy Nance and Morgan, who spent the past six seasons with Philadelphia.
Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel have been the key guys in the Cubs' bullpen. But one formula that worked well was bringing up guys like Nance, Thompson and Justin Steele, who made their major-league debuts this season and were unfamiliar to opposing hitters.
Thompson threw 15 innings without allowing an earned run to start his major-league career, while Nance went 11⅓ innings before giving up a run. Steele is on a rehab assignment with Iowa and could return soon from a hamstring strain.
The Cubs might be able to create more of that success with unfamiliar pitchers. One to watch is Ben Leeper, a right-hander who reportedly has been clocked at 99 mph and has piled up 37 strikeouts in 22 innings between Tennessee and Iowa.
The Cubs signed Leeper last year out of Oklahoma State when the MLB draft was shortened to five rounds. Another possibility is Dakota Mekkes, who has a 2.29 ERA at Iowa, but is currently on the injured list. Dillon Maples pitched an inning for Iowa on Tuesday on a rehab assignment.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls