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Pirates 6, Cubs 1: No One For The Defense

The Cubs’ usually good defense had a bad day at the worst possible time.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I said I was going to try to not make comparisons between the 2017 Cubs and the 2016 club, because last year was special and unique and that’s not fair to the two teams and the two seasons. Every season’s different and plays out in a unique way.

However, one of the things that made the 2016 Cubs as good as they were was outstanding defense, not just from one player but from the entire team.

Sunday, after seven innings’ worth of magnificent pitcher’s duel between Jon Lester and Jameson Taillon, the Cubs’ defense failed, miserably so, and that resulted in a 6-1 loss to the Pirates. That’s the Cubs’ worst loss of the season to date, and the first time they’ve been swept at Wrigley Field since last June, when the Cardinals took a three-game set. It’s the first time the Pirates have swept a series from the Cubs since September 5-6-7, 2014, when the Bucs won all three games in a Wrigley series.

The defense did its job early, at least. Willson Contreras threw out Jordy Mercer trying to steal after he led off the game with a four-pitch walk. On that play, Starling Marte struck out for a double play. That was significant because Andrew McCutchen then hit a long fly ball for a triple to right.

I’ll just come out and say it. Jason Heyward makes that play. Ben Zobrist didn’t. I, personally, would like to see less of Ben Zobrist in right field.

After the triple, Lester retired nine in a row before Addison Russell made a throwing error allowing David Freese to reach base. After a single, Kris Bryant made a fine play at third base to throw out Josh Harrison to end the inning.

Meanwhile, the Cubs were not taking advantage of opportunities. Kyle Schwarber singled to lead off the first. It appeared that Bryant had forced him at second base and was safe at first, but the Pirates challenged that Bryant’s slide was not legal and the review crew ruled that the Bucs were right [VIDEO].

Even after that the Cubs had a chance to score, as Anthony Rizzo and Zobrist singled. But Russell was called out on strikes.

The Cubs also had RISP in the third and fifth innings but could not score.

Meanwhile, the Cubs had some good defense in the middle innings. With one out and a runner on first in the fifth, Taillon attempted a bunt that Rizzo, Russell and Javier Baez turned into a double play. Contreras picked Freese off first after a leadoff walk in the seventh and then after Harrison was hit by a pitch, Willson threw him out on a patented Javy play. Here are all three of Contreras’ good plays. [VIDEO]

Unfortunately, that all stopped after the seventh inning. The Cubs took the lead on an RBI double by Tommy La Stella after a leadoff single by Jason Heyward. Given what had happened earlier in the day with strong pitching, it looked like one run might be enough, especially with Koji Uehara coming in for the eighth. Uehara had been outstanding all year.

Until this game. He issued a walk, then Adam Frazier doubled. Another walk loaded the bases, and a pop-fly single just out of the reach of Cubs fielders tied the game. Hector Rondon came in and got Marte to hit a ground ball to Baez. That resulted in a force at the plate, but after that is when the defense broke down.

Another ground ball in the infield, this one to Rizzo, should have resulted in the second out. Instead, this happened [VIDEO].

Contreras’ foot was just off the plate when the ball settled into his glove and the Pirates had a 2-1 lead, and there was still only one out.

Then Freese hit a ball to Heyward, fairly shallow, and Heyward threw homeward, and the throw went up the third base line. Still, Contreras should have stopped the ball. Instead, it got through and a third run scored. The error went to Heyward since his throw was offline, but again — Willson has to keep that ball in front of him.

At 3-1, the Cubs still could have come back, but were retired 1-2-3 by Felipe Rivero, a lefthander the Bucs acquired last summer in the Mark Melancon deal.

Justin Grimm had a disastrous ninth, hitting Harrison to lead off the inning, then issuing a walk, then serving up a three-run homer to Frazier. That sent much of the Easter Sunday crowd out of the ballpark, and ruined what was a very pleasant spring afternoon with a game-time temperature of 72.

Maybe I shouldn’t come down too hard on Contreras, given his strong defense earlier in the game. Credit to him for those, but he really has to make those late-inning plays.

It’s early and no one should be that concerned about a 6-6 start. However, this team did as well as they did in 2016 in part because they played airtight, outstanding defense. The 2017 team is going to have to tighten things up to win.

Oh, and the late-inning relief is going to have to improve, too.

The Cubs will have a new opponent Monday, a team they just finished taking two of three from in Milwaukee. The Brewers begin a three-game series Monday evening. It’ll be John Lackey for the Cubs and Chase Anderson for the Brewers.