Before you begin reading this recap of the Cubs' 3-0 Opening Night loss to the Cardinals, know that I'm doing this a bit differently this morning.
Since the Wrigley Field renovations and everything surrounding the new things at the corner of Clark & Addison are as big a story as the ballgame, I'm doing two recaps. This one will focus solely on the game. The other, coming later this morning, will focus on the ballpark, with David Sameshima's photos.
The hype for this game probably couldn't have been higher even without the curiosity about the Wrigley changes. With a new manager leading the ballclub and a real, true ace on the mound, everyone's hopes were very high for at least a good start to the 2015 season.
That lasted three batters. Jon Lester gave up a line-drive double to Jason Heyward (who loves hitting against the Cubs on Opening Day -- remember this game?) and a single to Matt Holliday and before many people were even re-settled in their seats from a long wait at the restroom (more on this in the ballpark recap), the Cubs trailed 1-0.
All right, 1-0 isn't a problem, right? Nine full innings to go!
The bottom of the first started out auspiciously when Dexter Fowler led off with a double. He advanced to third on a groundout, but was stranded. The Cubs, in fact, had three leadoff doubles. Chris Coghlan hit one in the second and David Ross in the fifth. Both men wound up on third, but got no farther. Another leadoff hit, Tommy La Stella's single in the third, provided no scoring even though La Stella stole second. (Tell me you predicted La Stella would register the Cubs' first steal of 2015.)
In all, the Cubs left RISP in the first, second, third, fifth and seventh innings and were 0-for-13 overall with RISP. Does this sound familiar?
Lester simply wasn't sharp, despite having good velocity and striking out six in 4⅓ innings. He allowed eight hits and a walk and Joe Maddon, figuring his ace had had enough after 89 pitches (57 strikes), lifted him.
That's when the Cubs' revamped bullpen really showed its stuff. Phil Coke, Jason Motte, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for 4⅔ innings and allowed two hits and a pair of walks. Just two runners got past first base. If the Cubs can get their offense going, games like this can be winnable. I was especially pleased with Coke, who struck out a pair sandwiched around an intentional walk, and Motte, whose velocity looked good. Using the Cubs' supposed last-three-innings triumvirate while trailing isn't something that's going to happen all the time, but it was fine given the off day today.
Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright.
What can you say? Wainwright's good and he was clearly on his game Sunday night. He did allow those three doubles, but otherwise breezed through the Cubs' order with little difficulty. The Cardinals bullpen did the same, with hard-throwing closer Trevor Rosenthal striking out the side in the ninth. You can't blame the weather for this one; even though the wind shifted off the lake not long before game time, dropping the game-time temperature to 44 degrees, the light seven mile-per-hour wind wasn't a factor and the weather conditions were probably better than 90 percent of all openers I've attended.
And if you think Kris Bryant's presence would have made any difference in this game, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Against Adam Wainwright? Making his big-league debut in a heavily-hyped game on a coolish night? I doubt Bryant would have had any better luck against Wainwright than any of the other Cubs hitters did.
One thing that concerned me a bit was Jorge Soler's defense in right field. After playing extremely well out there in spring training, showing off a great arm, Soler looked a little tentative playing balls hit in his direction. He muffed a couple of hits, though no errors were charged. I don't know if that could have been the weather affecting him, opening-night jitters, or just having "one of those days."
Meanwhile, Maddon showed us a bit of the mix-and-match I think we're going to see a lot of this year. Ross was lifted after Lester was gone; Miguel Montero pinch-hit for Coke and stayed in the game. Similarly, Arismendy Alcantara batted for Ramirez and then remained in, with La Stella going to the bench. In all, the pitcher's spot wound up in three different batting-order positions, seventh, eighth and ninth. Lester, starting in the eighth spot, struck out in his only time at the plate and remains hitless for his career (0-for-37).
Before Sunday, says baseball historian Ed Hartig, a Cubs pitcher had started in the eighth spot in the order just once in team history: September 8, 2012, when Jeff Samardzija did it at Pittsburgh. Shark went 0-for-3 that day, but the Cubs won the game. I think we'll see Maddon do this a lot with his pitchers this year.
Look, we knew the Cardinals would be a tough opponent this year. They always are. It's just one game, and Lester, who hadn't pitched against big-league hitters in 20 days, needs to shake off some of the rust. I'm sure he'll be fine.
After today's off day, the Cubs will be back on the field at Wrigley against the Cardinals Tuesday evening, with Jake Arrieta facing Lance Lynn. There will be less hype... and hopefully better Cubs baseball.
One final site-related note: Apologies for the strange look around the game stream and preview last night. With much to do to get ready for the opener, both here and preparing to go to the park, I messed this one up. It won't happen again.
Stick around, as I'll have my perspective on the Wrigley Field changes coming up at 10 a.m. CT.