This was the first game of 2015 where Jon Lester showed any of the form that got him signed to that six-year, $155 million contract. He struck out 10 and walked just one in six innings, but left while the Cubs were trailing 3-2. Chris Coghlan homered to tie the game, and then perhaps the three unlikeliest Cubs to drive in runs -- Jonathan Herrera, David Ross and Travis Wood -- spearheaded a four-run 11th.
The Cubs were 9-7 after this win, in second place, 2½ games behind the Cardinals.
Once again, I hardly know where to start this recap of the Cubs' 7-3, 11-inning win over the Reds, so how about we start at the end?
The Cubs put together a four-run 11th inning against reliever Burke Badenhop (and I keep wanting his first name to be "Boris," don't you?), with the biggest hit being a two-run, bases-loaded double by David Ross after Jonathan Herrera had driven in the lead run with a single. For Ross it was just his second hit of the season (in 13 at-bats) and for Herrera, who entered the contest 6-for-30, it was another contribution from a guy who wasn't a lock to make the 25-man roster out of spring training.
Now let's go back to the beginning. Jon Lester wasn't completely sharp Friday night, but he was better than any of his previous three starts. He got touched up for single runs in the first, third and fourth, largely due to the baserunning speed of Billy Hamilton, but did much better commanding the zone. He struck out 10, which is a season high, and is finally starting to look like the guy the Cubs thought they signed last offseason. By the time Lester had given up the third run, Anthony Rizzo had put them on the board with a no-doubt-about-it two-run homer in the fourth, his second. Chris Coghlan added a solo homer (to the opposite field!) in the sixth to allow Lester to leave the game with the score tied.
Personally, I think Lester could probably have gone another inning. He threw 104 pitches, his season high. On the other hand, only 63 starting pitchers have thrown that many or more in a game so far this year (through Thursday) -- about two per team. Only one -- Johnny Cueto of the Reds Wednesday against the Brewers -- has thrown more than 120 in a game this year. Beyond that, Lester really is a bad, bad hitter. His 0-for-3 made him 0-for-8 for 2015 and 0-for-44 (with 27 strikeouts) for his career. Cubs pitchers are 6-for-40 (.150) this year with 19 strikeouts. You know how I feel about that.
On to better news: props to the up-and-down Cubs bullpen. Phil Coke, Gonzalez Germen, Zac Rosscup, Jason Motte and Hector Rondon threw five innings and allowed three hits and three walks, striking out six. Germen and Rosscup were particularly impressive, pounding the zone and registering five of the six pen Ks. Granted that it's only two appearances, but Germen looks like a real find.
The Cubs actually had their chances against Aroldis Chapman; Rizzo doubled and Kris Bryant walked and one out later, they executed a double steal. More Maddon madness! But Starlin Castro struck out and Ross popped up to end the inning. It's hardly the only inning that a team hasn't scored off Chapman, but props to the Cubs for trying to make something happen.
Can't say enough good things about what Rizzo has done this year. He was 3-for-4 with the homer, a walk, the steal and two RBI and is now hitting .345/.493/.509. Keep that up and another All-Star appearance will almost certainly happen.
Chapman went to the mound to start the 10th, but when Maddon sent Chris Denorfia up to bat for Rosscup, Reds manager replaced Chapman with J.J. Hoover. Somehow, I doubt Chapman was going to throw the 10th anyway -- not after 23 pitches in the ninth. The problem with this managerial mind game was that Miguel Montero, who then batted for Denorfia, was the Cubs' last position player. And he didn't stay in the game, which was fine because Ross hit that key double, but once again this forced Maddon to go to Travis Wood as a pinch-hitter. Wood is a good hitter -- for a pitcher. I'm not sure you're going to want him to pinch hit 20+ times this year.
Which brings me to the point I've made a number of times about the eight-man bullpen and the short bench, which is made worse by the fact that the four bench players include two catchers. Yes, it's great that the Cubs have guys who can play multiple positions and now that Bryant has shown he's comfortable in the outfield, that flexibility is extended. And I know Maddon has been mixing and matching to try to find the right bullpen combination, and Friday night he did.
Here are some more 2015 pitching numbers to chew on. The Cubs have played 16 games. Only three Cubs starters have thrown seven innings -- Jake Arrieta (twice) and Wood (once). No Cubs starter has pitched in the eighth inning at all this year, and only two other Cubs starters have even pitched in the seventh. That's Arrieta again, and Jason Hammel . No wonder the bullpen is overworked.
I should note that I'm kind of screaming into the wind here. This isn't just a Cubs thing. In all of baseball (through Thursday) there had been only 105 starts of seven or more innings (and just 22 of eight or more). That's a little more than three per team, so the Cubs aren't doing anything different than anyone else. And there has been just one complete game in the major leagues at all so far in 2015 (through Thursday's games). You will be surprised, I think, when you learn the identity of this starter who stands alone -- click here to find out who it is.
So this is the way baseball is going, even more bullpen specialization. Personally, I don't think that's a good thing, and you can see why in the Cubs' uneven bullpen results so far this year. Sometimes -- as Friday -- they're really good. Other times -- like Thursday in Pittsburgh -- the reverse happens.
Eventually, I suspect there will be additional rostered players permitted, either an increase to a 26-man roster, or having a 30-man roster with 25 active for each game.
Addison Russell went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, but did make a really nice defensive stop. He seems a bit overmatched so far in the big leagues and he might wind up going back to Iowa when Tommy La Stella is ready to come off the disabled list.
Final note on this game: the Cubs are now 3-0 in extra-inning games so far in 2015.
A note on the 1990 throwback uniforms the Cubs wore for this game (the Reds were celebrating the 25th anniversary of their 1990 World Series team, which was managed by Lou Piniella) -- nice work again in matching the 1990 look. I wish the Cubs would wear traditional road gray more often.
Saturday afternoon, weather permitting (and based on this forecast, it might not permit), the Cubs will go for two in a row over the Reds and a series win with Arrieta on the mound against Anthony DeSclafani. The game preview will post at 10:30 a.m. CT.