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Cubs forced to go to bullpen early in loss

Duensing allows grand slam as Reds score 6 in 3rd
MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- Sandwiched between two series with the surging Dodgers, the series in Cincinnati the Cubs are currently playing was not supposed to be this much of a problem.

Instead, what originally looked like an "easier" part of the Cubs schedule has given them fits, and on Saturday, they lost for a third time in a row to the Reds, this time in landslide fashion, 11-2.

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CINCINNATI -- Sandwiched between two series with the surging Dodgers, the series in Cincinnati the Cubs are currently playing was not supposed to be this much of a problem.

Instead, what originally looked like an "easier" part of the Cubs schedule has given them fits, and on Saturday, they lost for a third time in a row to the Reds, this time in landslide fashion, 11-2.

View Full Game Coverage

A loss on Sunday will mark the first four-game sweep by the Reds over the Cubs since April 1983 -- a series that was also played in Cincinnati.

The Cubs, who will travel to Los Angeles after this series for their second series with the Dodgers in a week and a half, needed length from their spot starter, Luke Farrell, but he was lifted after 56 pitches with two outs in the third.

Manager Joe Maddon turned to left-handed reliever Brian Duensing to make his first appearance since returning from bereavement leave, and that's when the game got out of hand.

Scooter Gennett doubled and scored on Eugenio Suarez's base hit, and a walk by Jesse Winker and an infield hit by Adam Duvall loaded the bases for Reds starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani who cleared the bases with his first career homer.

The last Reds pitcher to hit a grand slam was Bob Purkey, on Aug. 1, 1959. Coincidentally, that homer was also against the Cubs.

The Reds have hit four grand slams in the past 10 days. The Cubs, meanwhile, have dropped five of their past seven games and have scored 16 runs during that time period.

Catcher Chris Gimenez finished out the game, pitching the eighth for the Cubs. Joey Votto lifted a three-run homer to right-center, adding to the Reds' pile-on.

The game also featured an ejection -- Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde was tossed in the fourth inning by home-plate umpire Greg Gibson.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs, Brian Duensing

La Stella stuns Votto with dive into crowd

Thanks to the likes of Javier Baez, highlight-reel defense from the Cubs' infield is nothing new. On Saturday afternoon, however, skipper Joe Maddon decided to give both him and Kris Bryant the day off against the Reds, tabbing Tommy La Stella for the start at third base.

Given the expertise of the Cubs' infield, La Stella doesn't receive too many chances to crack the starting lineup. In fact, he has received the start in only 14 of the Cubs' first 73 games. Fate sometimes has a way of finding the substitutes to test them early, and sure enough, that challenge came in the first inning.

Cubs fall to hot Reds for second night in row

Chicago hitless until the 4th; Quintana allows 3 runs in 5th
MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- The Cubs, 12 games over .500 entering Friday's game, seemingly had the advantage when they opened their series against the Reds, who, 75 games into the season, are in last place in the National League Central, with a double-digit deficit.

But every team has its hot streaks, and the Cubs seemingly have run into their division foes at the perfectly wrong time. The Reds, winners of eight of their past 10 games, topped the Cubs for a second night in a row at Great American Ball Park on Friday, prevailing, 6-3.

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CINCINNATI -- The Cubs, 12 games over .500 entering Friday's game, seemingly had the advantage when they opened their series against the Reds, who, 75 games into the season, are in last place in the National League Central, with a double-digit deficit.

But every team has its hot streaks, and the Cubs seemingly have run into their division foes at the perfectly wrong time. The Reds, winners of eight of their past 10 games, topped the Cubs for a second night in a row at Great American Ball Park on Friday, prevailing, 6-3.

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The Reds now own a 4-3 record this season against the Cubs. All seven games have been played in Cincinnati.

Video: CHC@CIN: Maddon on Quintana's performance in 6-3 loss

"We haven't played great here," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've played two of our least impressive games in about a month. It's just not been us playing our typical game. We grab a lot of energy off our defense; we needed to grab some off our offense. If we start hitting, we'll start doing what we're supposed to do. We've got to be more consistent at the plate."

The Cubs logged their first hit off Reds starter Luis Castillo in the fourth inning when Ben Zobrist laced a one-out double down the right-field line, barely in fair territory. That led to a three-run frame highlighted by Ohio native Kyle Schwarber's team-leading 15th homer of the season, a two-run shot that gave the Cubs a 3-1 advantage.

Video: CHC@CIN: Baez hit by pitch, call stands in the 6th

The lead was short-lived. Joey Votto drove in a run in the fifth with a base hit to center off Cubs lefty Jose Quintana, and Eugenio Suarez followed with a 421-foot, two-run homer to center, pushing the Reds ahead by a run.

Quintana entered this start with a 2.78 road ERA, significantly better than his 6.00 mark at Wrigley Field. He yielded four earned runs to the Reds in this outing, walking two and striking out three.

Video: CHC@CIN: Suarez clubs a 2-run homer to center field

"The biggest mistake for me was the home run," Quintana said. "I just missed my spot. That was a bad pitch, especially having just gotten the offense to help me out. It was just a bad time to have that happen. That's really what cost us the game."

The home run was hit off a changeup that caught the middle of the plate.

"One pitch just changed the game," Quintana said. "It was a battle. We needed this game."

The Reds tacked on an insurance run in the seventh off lefty reliever Justin Wilson, who allowed three Reds runners to reach base -- Votto via a leadoff walk, Suarez on a single to left and Adam Duvall, whose base hit to center drove in Votto.

Video: CHC@CIN: Wilson lays out to snag a bunt attempt

The Cubs have lost seven of their last 12 games, scoring nine runs in those seven losses. The Reds, meanwhile, are playing their best baseball of the year. Over their past 10 games, they've scored 56 runs and hit 13 home runs.

"We just have to hit better, and we haven't done that on a consistent basis," Maddon said. "They pitched well. Castillo's got a good arm, their bullpen's been better. So they have pitched better. But we still have to figure out a different way to score some runs."

MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Schwarber's fourth-inning homer traveled 399 feet and left his bat at 102.7 mph, according to Statcast™. He now leads the team in homers, surpassing Javier Baez, who has 14 on the year.

"Schwarber's getting different -- he's getting different in a good way," Maddon said. "He's handling the ball up in the zone a lot better. He's not missing it. He's looked really good." More >

Video: CHC@CIN: Schwarber cranks a 2-run homer to center

SOUND SMART
Baez's suicide squeeze bunt in the fourth inning was the second successful squeeze by the Cubs vs. the Reds this season. Jon Lester squeezed home Schwarber on May 18, with Homer Bailey on the mound for Cincinnati.

Video: CHC@CIN: Baez plates Zobrist with a bunt single

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Maddon won a replay challenge in the third inning after Chris Gimenez was originally called out on a tag play at first base following a high throw by Suarez from third. But Maddon expressed his displeasure to the umpires that Gimenez was originally called out, considering that from Maddon's perspective, it was not possible to determine if the runner was safe or out from the vantage point of either home-plate umpire Jeremie Rehak, or first-base ump Greg Gibson.

By making an out call, the burden of proof then fell to the Cubs to prove it wrong. Maddon would have preferred the umpires had gotten together to discuss the play and check to see if anyone had a proper view.

"Unless you're absolutely certain you saw a tag, say, 'I didn't see anything,'" Maddon said. "Where [Gibson] was, I thought it was almost impossible from his view to definitively say, 'I saw a tag.' If you're going to say he tagged him, you better be 100 percent sure."

Video: CHC@CIN: Gimenez is ruled safe at first after review

UP NEXT
Luke Farrell will make his first start of 2018 when he takes the mound for the Cubs on Saturday against the Reds at 3:10 p.m. CT. The right-hander, who was named the starter following Friday's game, has made 12 relief appearances this year, allowing seven earned runs over 17 1/3 innings for a 3.63 ERA. The Cubs, looking to climb back in the series after losing the first two games, will face right-hander Anthony DeSclafani (2-1, 4.60).

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs, Jose Quintana, Kyle Schwarber

Schwarber hits 15th HR in front of hometown

MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- The local kid made himself at home at Great American Ball Park on Friday night, launching a home run that traveled nearly 400 feet in the Cubs' 6-3 loss to the Reds.

Kyle Schwarber, who grew up in nearby Middletown, Ohio, logged his 15th homer of the season in the fourth inning. The two-run shot off Reds starter Luis Castillo traveled an estimated 399 feet to center field and left his bat at 102.7 mph, according to Statcast™. The homer gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead.

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CINCINNATI -- The local kid made himself at home at Great American Ball Park on Friday night, launching a home run that traveled nearly 400 feet in the Cubs' 6-3 loss to the Reds.

Kyle Schwarber, who grew up in nearby Middletown, Ohio, logged his 15th homer of the season in the fourth inning. The two-run shot off Reds starter Luis Castillo traveled an estimated 399 feet to center field and left his bat at 102.7 mph, according to Statcast™. The homer gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead.

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Manager Joe Maddon said Schwarber was "getting different, in a good way," handling balls up in the zone better and not missing pitches.

"He's looked really good," Maddon said.

Schwarber's last three hits in his past four games have been home runs. He's averaging one home run every 14.20 at-bats this season, and entering Friday's game, his one homer in every 14.93 at-bats was the third-best ratio in the National League, behind the Nationals' Bryce Harper (13.37) and the Reds' Eugenio Suarez (14.20).

Schwarber has reached base safely in 51 of the 65 games he's played in this year.

"I still want to be able to string some things together," Schwarber said. "Obviously, I put a good swing on the ball today. I want to be able to still go up there and have good at-bats and put up a quality at-bat. I want to work the at-bat and get my pitch, and when I do get my pitch, drive it."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs, Kyle Schwarber

Cubs activate Duensing, option Hancock

MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- Prior to Friday's game, the Cubs activated left-handed reliever Brian Duensing from the bereavement list and optioned right-hander Justin Hancock to Triple-A Iowa.

Duensing was placed on the bereavement list on Monday due to the passing of his grandfather. His flight from Chicago to Cincinnati landed a couple of hours before first pitch on Friday, at which time the Cubs made the official roster move.

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CINCINNATI -- Prior to Friday's game, the Cubs activated left-handed reliever Brian Duensing from the bereavement list and optioned right-hander Justin Hancock to Triple-A Iowa.

Duensing was placed on the bereavement list on Monday due to the passing of his grandfather. His flight from Chicago to Cincinnati landed a couple of hours before first pitch on Friday, at which time the Cubs made the official roster move.

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Manager Joe Maddon said he opted to keep lefty reliever Rob Zastryzny over Hancock mainly because he is looking for length out of the bullpen. The Cubs still had not named a starter for Saturday, and keeping Zastryzny, a former starter who can serve as a long reliever, protected them against the chance that Friday's contest would require extra work from the 'pen, either because of a short outing by the starter or an extra-inning game.

Video: LAD@CHC: Zastryzny leaves the bases loaded in 10th

Hancock, who was recalled on Tuesday in advance of the Cubs' doubleheader with the Dodgers, has made eight straight scoreless appearances over two separate stints with the Cubs, totaling 10 1/3 innings.

"When you send a guy back like that, he has to know he didn't do anything wrong," Maddon said. "It's just a matter of need and your skills, what you do compared to somebody else, and you have to make a decision. That's all that was."

Yu throws bullpen; Edwards, Morrow improving
After throwing a bullpen session on Friday, right-hander Yu Darvish (right triceps tendinitis) is still on track to begin a Minor League rehab assignment next week, possibly as early as Monday.

"If tomorrow he comes in and feels great, we'll let you know," Maddon said.

Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. (right shoulder inflammation) isn't quite as close to a return, but he threw on flat ground Friday and should be able graduate to throwing off the mound on Sunday.

Closer Brandon Morrow, who recently went on the disabled list with lower back tightness, played a light game of catch on Friday with no issues.

"I'm throwing just to keep my arm going, not necessarily to test my back," Morrow said.

Chatwood on call
Tyler Chatwood, a pending proud papa, will likely start Sunday's finale in Cincinnati -- unless his wife goes into labor between now and then, in which case he'll be high-tailing it back to Chicago for the birth of their first child.

If he does have to leave the team, Mike Montgomery will likely start instead on Sunday.

"If Chatwood can pitch Sunday, he can stay closer to home, and he doesn't have to go to L.A.," Maddon said. "That's best for him and his family. That's Plan A. We have Plan B and C, too."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs, Yu Darvish, Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Morrow

Rough 6th inning too much for Cubs vs. Reds

Starter has control issues before lefty allows slam to Reds
MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- Randy Rosario has been up and down from Triple-A to the Majors three times already this season, but despite the frequent changes of scenery, he was always steady and productive when called upon.

Rosario ran into his first big league bout with ineffectiveness on Thursday, yielding a grand slam to Reds outfielder Jesse Winker in the sixth inning of the Cubs' 6-2 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

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CINCINNATI -- Randy Rosario has been up and down from Triple-A to the Majors three times already this season, but despite the frequent changes of scenery, he was always steady and productive when called upon.

Rosario ran into his first big league bout with ineffectiveness on Thursday, yielding a grand slam to Reds outfielder Jesse Winker in the sixth inning of the Cubs' 6-2 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

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"Give Winker credit," manager Joe Maddon said. "He got the fastball. He did not miss it, he did not foul it off, did not take it. He hit it really well. That was it. That's the ballgame, pretty much, right there."

Video: CHC@CIN: Winker belts a go-ahead grand slam in 6th

Rosario entered the game tasked with cleaning up a bases-loaded jumble created by starter Kyle Hendricks (5-7), who issued three of his four walks in that inning. Billy Hamilton drew a leadoff walk and was joined on the basepaths by Joey Votto, who also walked, and Scooter Gennett, who singled. Hendricks' final batter, Eugenio Suarez, drew a bases-loaded walk, prompting Maddon to turn to rookie Rosario to face the left-handed Winker.

"It's a tough position to put anybody in," Maddon said of Rosario. "I do not fault him whatsoever. It just happened. Winker didn't miss it. Rosie's been great for us. This happens every once in a while."

The grand slam, Winker's first of his career, traveled 417 feet to center field. It also ended Rosario's perfect 10-for-10 ratio in stranding inherited baserunners.

"He's been awesome for us all year," Hendricks said. "I put him in a tough spot, coming into the game right there. That's going to happen. He can't get every guy. [Winker's] a good hitter. [Rosario's] been huge for us the rest of the year. He'll be all right."

Before this outing, Rosario, who also allowed an RBI single to Hamilton in the sixth inning, when 11 Reds made plate appearances, yielded one run over 12 games this season, totaling 15 innings. After he allowed a run in Philadelphia on June 5, Rosario strung together six scoreless outings, including both ends of a doubleheader against the Dodgers on Tuesday.

"Those things happen sometimes," Rosario said of Thursday's outing. "You learn. My teammates supported me -- they said, 'Hey it's going to happen.'"

Video: CHC@CIN: Hendricks retires Gennett, strands a runner

Hendricks has yielded 13 earned runs over four starts in June and has walked at least three batters in three of those outings. He said he felt better in this start than the prior one in St. Louis, where he yielded three runs and four walks over six innings in a winning effort against the Cardinals.

"I've got to stick with what I'm doing," Hendricks said. "I felt better today. I made better pitches. I convicted the pitches. The last inning, I wasn't repeating my mechanics, got out of it. Before that, everything was good."

Said Maddon: "He was going along pretty well. It was unusual to see him walk that many guys. I didn't quite know. If he's walking three guys in an inning, I'm thinking, maybe he's a little bit tired at that point."

Video: CHC@CIN: Hendricks K's Duvall to end the 2nd inning

The Cubs scored their two runs in the third inning on a double by Javier Baez that scored Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward, who recorded his ninth career four-hit game. The Cubs managed five hits off Reds starter Matt Harvey, who walked one and struck out six.

The loss marked the Cubs' seventh in their past 22 games.

"We just had an emotionally tough series," Maddon said, referring to the Dodgers series earlier this week. "We come down here... Give us a day. We'll be back tomorrow."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After losing their slim 2-0 lead, the Cubs' best chance to score arrived in the seventh, when, with two outs, Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen allowed three runners to reach base -- Bryant on an infield hit, Heyward on a double and Baez on a walk. Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman brought in lefty Amir Garrett to face Rizzo, who froze Rizzo on a low fastball for a called third strike.

Video: CHC@CIN: Garrett K's Rizzo, strands the bases loaded

Was it a little too low?

"It probably was," Maddon said. "I thought the umpire [Jordan Baker] had a good night. He may have missed a pitch or two. They're not going to be perfect. We thought it was down."

SOUND SMART
In his past 19 games dating back to May 29, Heyward is hitting .370 (30-for-81) with eight doubles, two homers, 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored. He's reached base safely in 13 straight games.

Video: CHC@CIN: Peraza swipes second base on overturned call

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Reds shortstop Jose Peraza was initially called out on a steal attempt with two outs in the third, but a replay showed that he snuck his foot in just ahead of the tag by Cubs shortstop Addison Russell. After a review of two minutes and 27 seconds, the call was overturned.

UP NEXT
Jose Quintana (6-5, 4.06 ERA) will take the mound for the second game of a four-game set in Cincinnati on Friday at 6:10 p.m. CT. The lefty has a 2.78 ERA over eight road starts, compared to 6.00 at home. Quintana has a 2-0 record and 2.70 ERA in three career starts against the Reds. Most recently, he earned the win at Great American Ball Park on May 19, allowing one hit over seven scoreless frames. The Reds will counter with right-hander Luis Castillo (4-8, 5.77).

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs, Kyle Hendricks, Randy Rosario

Weather disrupts Cubs' starting rotation, 'pen

MLB.com @alysonfooter

CINCINNATI -- One of the more well-worn cliches in baseball is "take it one game at a time." But when Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it on Thursday, he meant it literally. He wants to play one game at a time, per day -- not two, which is a possibility given the weekend forecast in Cincinnati this weekend.

"I'll be very happy with one game at a time," Maddon said.

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CINCINNATI -- One of the more well-worn cliches in baseball is "take it one game at a time." But when Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it on Thursday, he meant it literally. He wants to play one game at a time, per day -- not two, which is a possibility given the weekend forecast in Cincinnati this weekend.

"I'll be very happy with one game at a time," Maddon said.

View Full Game Coverage

The skies cleared about an hour or so before first pitch on Thursday, allowing the Cubs and Reds to dodge any unwanted delays for the opener of the four-game set. Friday and Saturday are murkier, with thunderstorms projected to bombard the area until Sunday.

The Cubs are not scheduled to return to Cincinnati this season after the current series is complete. The remaining 10 games between the teams will be played at Wrigley Field.

The uncertainty of the weather has delayed the Cubs from looking beyond Friday to set their rotation. Jose Quintana will start Friday's game, but Saturday and Sunday are currently listed as TBD.

Luke Farrell is a possibility, though Maddon said he won't let that deter him from using Farrell in relief if necessary.

The planning process has also been in a little bit of disarray due to some happy news as well -- Tyler Chatwood is currently on standby, as his wife is expecting a baby any day. That will necessitate the right-hander, who started one of the games of the doubleheader with the Dodgers on Tuesday, to take a temporary leave of absence.

Maddon said he'll most likely anoint starters for the final two games after Friday's contest, assuming rain doesn't interrupt the schedule.

"This weather report is so awkward," Maddon said.

The Cubs are in a stretch of playing 14 games in 13 days without a day off, and it's a safe bet they'll need to stretch their bullpen a bit to get through it. They'll also have to rely on several relievers who weren't with the club on Opening Day to help.

So far, the backup cast has picked up much of the slack for mainstays Carl Edwards Jr. and closer Brandon Morrow -- both injured -- and Brian Duensing, who's due back Friday after missing time on the bereavement list.

Entering Thursday's opener, the Cubs' 'pen ranked second in the Majors with a 2.72 ERA, and a .209 opponents' batting average, second to only the Yankees.

Maddon said he will not be assigning roles or innings ahead of time with his current crop of relievers. The general message? Just be ready.

"I'm not going to lose the game in the sixth or the seventh inning, if that's a very critical moment in the game, by holding somebody back," he said. "We might score a bunch of runs afterward, or they might hit a bunch, and it becomes moot. When you're in a situation like this, where you have less than everybody, they'll just have to be all hands on deck, all the time."

Darvish improving

Yu Darvish, who threw a 51-pitch simulated game on Wednesday, could be close to beginning a rehab assignment, though Maddon said he'll need to discuss it further with the Cubs' athletic training staff.

"He feels good today," Maddon said of the right-hander, who's recovering from right triceps tendinitis. "We'll map it out. We're very optimistic right now."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Chicago Cubs

The most pressing question facing Cubs

MLB.com @LangoschMLB

In a bunched-up National League Central, a crossroads is coming.

Ahead sits a crucial six-week stretch that will push the season past its halfway point and bring it to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Buyers and sellers will be defined. Pretenders and contenders will separate. And in a division where four teams still have a legitimate chance to earn a postseason berth, key decisions will surface.

In a bunched-up National League Central, a crossroads is coming.

Ahead sits a crucial six-week stretch that will push the season past its halfway point and bring it to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Buyers and sellers will be defined. Pretenders and contenders will separate. And in a division where four teams still have a legitimate chance to earn a postseason berth, key decisions will surface.

Here is a look at a few of them, as MLB.com has identified one pressing question that each NL Central club will seek to answer before the end of next month:

BREWERS
The question: Could Jimmy Nelson be the boost Milwaukee's rotation needs?

After watching the Brewers swing a deal for Christian Yelich in January, most everyone expected the club to follow up by adding a front-line starter. That splash never came, and it leaves Milwaukee in a spot where it again must assess whether its starting depth is sufficient.

Thus far, it's been Jhoulys Chacin and Junior Guerra anchoring a rotation that has been around league average in most statistical categories. Getting Zach Davies off the disabled list should provide a boost, and the Brewers see potential in rookie Freddy Peralta. But they still lack an ace.

Nelson isn't exactly that, but if he can avoid another setback in his recovery from shoulder surgery, Milwaukee may be more content to stand pat with what it has. Nelson's rehab hit some snags this spring, and he hasn't yet resumed throwing off the mound. The Brewers can use the next few weeks to asses Nelson's progress and better project the potential impact he may have in the second half. If it isn't deemed to be enough, their search for rotation help may again heat up.

CARDINALS
The question: Does St. Louis have enough on offense?

Sound familiar? It should, as this is the same question the Cardinals were trying to address months ago. Marcell Ozuna was supposed to play a big role in answering it, but even as he's come alive this month, the pieces around him haven't exactly fallen into place.

Video: Marcell Ozuna is named the NL Player of the Week

The club ranks in the league's bottom half in runs scored, and the offense leans too heavily on the long ball. Dramatic first-half struggles from Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong have complicated lineup construction. Injuries to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong haven't helped, either.

But Molina is back, DeJong is on the mend and others (namely Matt Carpenter and Ozuna) have recently provided production more consistent with their career norms. With middle-of-the-order bats like Manny Machado and Mike Moustakas expected to be dangled as trade options in the coming weeks, St. Louis will have to assess whether it will gamble on this current unit coming around, or if the club is willing to part with prized prospects to acquire another big bat. The latter would be a particularly bold move for a team that is often hesitant to give up long-term assets for a short-term fix. The Cards would be more inclined to do so if they can first close the gap with the Brewers and Cubs.

CUBS
The question: What will Yu do?

Yu Darvish was supposed to be the missing piece the defending division champs needed, but he has spent as much time on the DL as he has the active roster this year. First, it was the flu. Now, it's a right triceps injury.

Yes, Mike Montgomery has done an exceptional job filling in during Darvish's absence. But there's a reason the Cubs committed $126 million to Darvish this offseason. Getting him back -- and the Cubs are optimistic they will before the All-Star break -- would give Chicago even more flexibility in how it can deploy its arms. The Cubs could give Tyler Chatwood time to pause and address his command troubles. They could consider temporarily transitioning to a six-man rotation. Or (and this seems likeliest), they could make one of baseball's best bullpens even more formidable by adding Montgomery to it.

Video: LAD@CHC: Montgomery tosses 6 innings of 1-run ball

For a club with few glaring needs, sliding Darvish back into the rotation may be the biggest move the Cubs make in July. Of course, they'll only get a boost if he's better than his first impression and can stay healthy. Darvish has a 4.95 ERA, three quality starts and a 1.425 WHIP in eight games. The Cubs need better.

PIRATES
The question: Will the Bucs be buyers or sellers?

In dealing away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole last offseason, the Pirates cast themselves into what most folks thought would be another rebuild. Then they raced out to an 11-4 start to the season, forcing many to reevaluate whether they had undersold Pittsburgh's potential. That answer is still unclear.

The Bucs have been a streaky team so far, and not for the better as of late. A recent 9-19 stretch -- one complicated by a leaky bullpen -- has dropped the Pirates into fourth place in the division. If they're still treading around or below the .500 mark at this time next month, Pittsburgh will likely listen to trade offers on veteran players nearing free agency. That may put Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese and/or Francisco Cervelli on the move. But if the next six weeks go more like the first few did, general manager Neal Huntington may be inclined to hold onto his assets and even add a complementary piece or two.

So what has to go right for the Pirates to push themselves into buying consideration? Their inexperienced rotation will need to hold up. The Bucs' young relievers will need to step up. Their lineup will need to show that its early production was no fluke. And Pittsburgh would probably need to leapfrog at least one team ahead of it in the division.

REDS
The question: Will Cincinnati's carousel of outfielders finally prove fruitful?

There was sound logic behind the Reds' decision to enter the season rotating four outfielders through three outfield spots. They believed that such a system would help keep everyone fresh and maximize the varying skill sets offered by Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Jesse Winker. Instead, the club has been handcuffed by inconsistent production from all four. Currently, Cincinnati ranks last in the NL in outfielder batting average and slugging percentage.

The biggest conundrum may be what to do with Hamilton. His elite defensive ability will always be an asset, but he's not been on base enough to take advantage of his speed. Hamilton is just a little over a year away from free agency, and if he's not deemed part of the Reds' long-term plan, the club may reach a point where they quit prioritizing his playing time.

Video: CIN@PIT: Hamilton lays out for tremendous catch

The other possibility is that the club could try to deal the center fielder. Duvall could also be on the trade block. What sort of value either might have on the market will be shaped whether either can find his way out of a first-half funk.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals

Helped by D, Lester in charge as Cubs blank LA

Club makes several fine plays, Schwarber homers to back veteran lefty
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- Jon Lester admitted he didn't have his best stuff Wednesday. It didn't matter. He let his teammates pick him up with some stellar defense.

Lester threw seven strong innings and Kyle Schwarber gave him a boost with a solo home run, his second in as many games, to lift the Cubs to a 4-0 victory over the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and take the series.

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CHICAGO -- Jon Lester admitted he didn't have his best stuff Wednesday. It didn't matter. He let his teammates pick him up with some stellar defense.

Lester threw seven strong innings and Kyle Schwarber gave him a boost with a solo home run, his second in as many games, to lift the Cubs to a 4-0 victory over the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and take the series.

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"In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball. The baserunning, the defense, the throws, all that kind of stuff. The real baseball purist loves that style of game."

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo also drove in runs for the Cubs, who have won 17 of their last 25 games. Schwarber ignored the wind and connected against Ross Stripling with two outs in the fourth inning to hand the Dodgers' starter his first loss in his last seven starts.

Video: LAD@CHC: Bryant knocks in Baez with a single to left

Lester improved to 7-1 with a 1.58 ERA in his last 10 starts, giving up 11 earned runs over 62 2/3 innings in that stretch.

"It wasn't exactly ideal on my end with pitching," Lester said. "I really didn't have much today and kind of grinded through that one. The defense, like I've said before, they've been picking us up all year. It's kind of like, 'Here, I don't have anything, just hit it and hopefully those guys run it down and catch it.' They did today."

Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward threw out a runner at home and Javier Baez made an impressive unassisted double play to highlight some of the Cubs' stellar defense.

"That's what we do, man," Baez said. "I'm not surprised. We try to do our best for our pitchers. Like I say all the time, great defense wins ballgames. We have great athletes out there."

After the sixth inning, Lester's pitch count was at 109. Maddon had asked pitching coach Jim Hickey if he thought they could get another inning out of the lefty because the Cubs' bullpen had been realigned. Neither Maddon nor Hickey had to ask Lester; he volunteered for one more inning and finished with a season-high 119 pitches.

"After the sixth inning, he said, 'I need to go out there for one more.' I said, 'You're absolutely right,'" Maddon said.

"At that point, what's 15, 20 more pitches?" Lester said.

Video: Cubs on strong defense, pitching in 4-0 win

Closer Brandon Morrow was placed on the disabled list before Wednesday's game, which left the Cubs' bullpen with five pitchers who began the season at Triple-A Iowa (Randy Rosario, Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Justin Hancock and Rob Zastryzny).

As long as Lester's teammates are backing him, he'll be fine.

"Now I'm relying a lot more on my defense," Lester said of how he's pitching this year compared to two years ago. "In '16, I had a lot better stuff, consistently better stuff. I've had starts this year where I've felt really good physically, been able to repeat and do the things I've done in the past. But obviously, I've thrown a lot of baseballs. There's some wear and tear there. I'm not going to be the same pitcher I was even last year or two years ago.

"We're making adjustments. We're figuring out new ways to get guys out."

This was the lefty's first meeting with the Dodgers since Game 2 of the 2017 National League Championship Series. He did not get a decision in that game, and the Cubs lost the series in five games.

"Offensively, I thought it was one of our best offensive approaches in a game and Lester might have had a rabbit's foot in his pocket because he didn't have the command he normally has and we squared a lot of balls up," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "Credit to them for making some very good plays and to Jon for hanging in there for seven innings."

These two teams won't have to wait until October to play again. They begin a four-game series on Monday night in Los Angeles.

"It's just an experienced series," Heyward said. "Good baseball, good teams, teams that have been to the NLCS, teams that have been to the postseason and that's that."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Home run derby: With two outs in the Cubs' fourth, Schwarber launched the first pitch from Stripling, a changeup, 429 feet to left-center field for his 14th homer, matching Baez for the team lead.

Video: LAD@CHC: Schwarber belts solo homer to deep center

"[First-pitch] changeup. Pretty dumb pitch, really," Stripling said. "Just trying to get ahead and threw too fat of a pitch, and he clobbered it. I mean, that was into the wind and 10 rows up in center field. Not a smart pitch."

El Mago: Baez doubled in the second and fifth and also tripled in the seventh and scored on pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella's single. It was Baez's first career game with three extra-base hits. Baez also contributed on defense. Enrique Hernandez was at second with nobody out in the Dodgers' eighth when Justin Turner lined out to Baez, who made the catch and dove head-first to beat Hernandez back to the bag.

Video: LAD@CHC: Baez makes catch, dives at bag for smooth DP

"He just plays like a free safety," Maddon said. "He throws his whole body out there all the time and gets back up. He's got that flare about him -- people want to see Javy play. When his name is announced, the place erupts all the time. He's always in the middle of something good."

Video: LAD@CHC: Baez on health, 3-hit game vs. the Dodgers

SOUND SMART
The Cubs improved to 15-1 in their last 23 games since May 27 when they score at least two runs in a game.

Lester has pitched at least six innings and given up one or zero runs in 44 starts since the start of 2015, tied for the most such outings in the Majors with Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Heyward and Willson Contreras combined for a stellar double play in the Dodgers' third. Chris Taylor hit a one-out double off Lester but didn't try to score on Hernandez's single to left, deciding not to challenge Schwarber's arm. Turner then flied out to right and Taylor tagged up and tried to score, but Heyward fired a perfect strike home to Contreras to get the runner. Contreras needed minor treatment from athletic trainer PJ Mainville after the collision for a bloody nose, then fired the ball over the roof to celebrate the play.

Video: Must C Cannon: Heyward cuts down Taylor at the plate

"That's a grand slam right there, that's a beautiful thing," Maddon said of the impact the play had.

HE SAID IT
"To be able to get two out of three after losing the first game [Tuesday] in the manner that we did, I give our guys a lot of credit." -- Maddon of the three-game series, which began with the Dodgers rallying in the ninth inning for a win

UP NEXT
Kyle Hendricks gets the nod as the Cubs open a four-game series in Cincinnati on Thursday. Hendricks ended a personal three-game losing streak with a win in his last start. The goal now may be to get through the first inning without giving up a home run. He has served up 14 homers this season, seven in the first inning. He did not get a decision vs. the Reds on May 19, giving up three earned runs over five innings. Cincinnati will counter with Matt Harvey, who makes the first pitch at 6:10 p.m. CT at Great American Ball Park.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Jon Lester

Heyward makes case for throw of the year

Play at plate highlights day of flashy defensive plays for Cubs
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- He ended up with a bloody nose, but Cubs catcher Willson Contreras still held on to the ball, completing a stellar double play in the third inning of Chicago's 4-0 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday.

After hitting a one-out ground-rule double to center field, Dodgers leadoff batter Chris Taylor didn't try to score on Enrique Hernandez's single to left, deciding not to challenge Kyle Schwarber's arm. Justin Turner then flied out to right fielder Jason Heyward, and Taylor tagged up and tried to score. But Heyward fired a perfect strike home to Contreras to get the runner.

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CHICAGO -- He ended up with a bloody nose, but Cubs catcher Willson Contreras still held on to the ball, completing a stellar double play in the third inning of Chicago's 4-0 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday.

After hitting a one-out ground-rule double to center field, Dodgers leadoff batter Chris Taylor didn't try to score on Enrique Hernandez's single to left, deciding not to challenge Kyle Schwarber's arm. Justin Turner then flied out to right fielder Jason Heyward, and Taylor tagged up and tried to score. But Heyward fired a perfect strike home to Contreras to get the runner.

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"I just envision that," Heyward said. "I know Turner, he hits the ball in the air that way a lot, and especially with a man on third base and less than two [outs], he's going to get the job done. I envisioned that, and it worked out. Great play by Willie. I feel every time I've thrown the ball home, he's gotten the guy out."

Said center fielder Albert Almora Jr.: "It was unbelievable to be a witness and to be right next to [Heyward]. I'll be honest, when the ball was hit, I was like, 'That's kind of deep.' You've got Taylor running, who is a good runner. As soon as he let it go, I was like, 'He's out.' It's unbelievable to be a part of and witness day in and day out."

Tweet from @Cubs: Loose cannons. #EverybodyIn pic.twitter.com/PjDu36mYB5

The play energized the Cubs, who went on to beat the Dodgers and take the series.

"That's a grand slam right there. That's a beautiful thing," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

"I don't know if there's a video of us, but I lost my voice, we were screaming so loud," Almora said. "It's such a great play."

Contreras needed minor treatment from athletic trainer PJ Mainville after the collision, then fired the ball over the roof to celebrate the play.

Heyward isn't the only Cubs outfielder who scares opposing baserunners. Schwarber, who leads all National League left fielders with seven assists, is joining the list.

"I feel they'll learn quickly on 'Schwarb,' if they haven't already," Heyward said. "You have to earn that respect, you have to earn that sense of caution from the third-base coach. Please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen. I think the biggest thing is we all want the ball, we all want to be ready, we all want to make the play."

The Heyward-to-Contreras play wasn't the only defensive highlight. Almora had a great catch in the seventh to rob Yasiel Puig of a potential hit, and Javier Baez moved from shortstop to second in the eighth inning and made an unassisted double play.

Video: CHC@LAD: Almora Jr. lays out to rob Puig of a hit

"We just keep making plays for our pitcher and they love it," Baez said.

Starting pitcher Jon Lester jokingly shrugged off the defensive gems.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one, and I'm just like, 'I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Lester said. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there, and they're going to run it down.'"

Video: LAD@CHC: Baez makes catch, dives at bag for smooth DP

Almora noticed that Lester didn't acknowledge his catch.

"You know what? I saw the replay of when I made the play, I immediately looked at Jon to see if he was clapping, and he didn't," Almora laughed. "I was [ticked]. No, I gave him a big hug and congratulated him for a great outing. But I need some clapping."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward

Morrow injured taking off pants, lands on DL

Strop, Cishek, Wilson, Hancock candidates to close with Morrow out
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- The Cubs will be mixing and matching at closer after placing Brandon Morrow on the 10-day disabled list, retroactive to Sunday, because of tightness in his back.

The Cubs will keep reliever Justin Hancock on the roster to take Morrow's spot. Hancock was the 26th man added for Tuesday's doubleheader against the Dodgers.

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CHICAGO -- The Cubs will be mixing and matching at closer after placing Brandon Morrow on the 10-day disabled list, retroactive to Sunday, because of tightness in his back.

The Cubs will keep reliever Justin Hancock on the roster to take Morrow's spot. Hancock was the 26th man added for Tuesday's doubleheader against the Dodgers.

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Morrow injured his back taking his pants off early Monday when he got home after the Cubs' road trip.

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, especially when you can't go for something as stupid as taking your pants off," Morrow said on Tuesday. "Getting hurt any time is frustrating, but when it's not related to throwing a baseball, it's even more frustrating."

Manager Joe Maddon said Morrow may have been dehydrated after the Cubs' series in St. Louis.

"It's one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs are in the midst of playing 17 games in consecutive days and didn't want to go to Cincinnati this weekend short-handed.

"I don't want [Morrow] to go out there and pitch coming off that right now," Maddon said of Morrow. "There's really no reason for him to rush it back. I prefer him getting 100 percent well and getting back out there when it's right. We cannot go through this weekend, if in fact we play, with less than a full bullpen."

The Cubs are also missing Carl Edwards Jr., who is on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. He was making progress, but there's no timetable for his return. Left-hander Brian Duensing is on the bereavement list and could rejoin the team Friday.

Morrow was feeling better before Wednesday's 4-0 win over the Dodgers, but said he'd probably need two to three days to heal, and he understood the decision to place him on the DL. He's also gotten some ribbing because of the way he injured his back.

"Anybody who has had a back spasm knows you can get it doing anything -- brushing your teeth, sneezing, picking up a kid," Morrow said. "I think almost everyone has a story. People hitting me up on Twitter were kind of making fun of me, but also people were saying, 'Hey, I sneezed last week, and I haven't been able to move since.'

"I was just saying it because that's how it happened. I wasn't thinking about it being a joke or anything. It's definitely not the best way you want to do it."

Morrow doesn't feel the pain as much when he's walking around, but sitting is tough. He may be standing during the Cubs' flight to Cincinnati.

So who's the closer?

"It'll be a matchup backside, yes," Maddon said.

Hancock is one of the candidates to close, along with Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and lefty Justin Wilson. Cishek has been in the closer role for the Marlins and Mariners and is 2-for-4 in save situations this season with the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay it," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said about Morrow's injury. "He had back spasms. He had the same thing in Spring Training. We started treating it the same way we treated it in Spring Training, and I think he was out about a week, 10 days. If things go as we hope, it will be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days are up. If he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can backdate it three days, so it makes sense to put him on the DL. He understood that."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Brandon Morrow

Darvish (triceps) impresses in simulated game

Righty shows full repertoire, could begin rehab assignment early next week
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- The Cubs were encouraged by Yu Darvish's outing in a simulated game Wednesday, and the right-hander may need just one rehab start before he's ready to return to the rotation.

Darvish threw 51 pitches over three simulated innings, facing teammates Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella at Wrigley Field while manager Joe Maddon, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the coaching staff all watched.

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CHICAGO -- The Cubs were encouraged by Yu Darvish's outing in a simulated game Wednesday, and the right-hander may need just one rehab start before he's ready to return to the rotation.

Darvish threw 51 pitches over three simulated innings, facing teammates Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella at Wrigley Field while manager Joe Maddon, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the coaching staff all watched.

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"Really good. I'll take it," Maddon said after the workout. "That was outstanding, actually. Great command, great jump on the fastball. His slider was there, and I think he threw one or two splitters at the end. You can't ask for anything more, he looked that good. The delivery was easy, solid. He had a smile on his face, so that means he probably felt pretty good about it. We'll evaluate it again tomorrow."

The Cubs want to see how Darvish feels after the session. He's been on the disabled list since May 23 because of inflammation in his right triceps. Darvish admitted to feeling a little nervous before the sim game because he wasn't sure how his arm would feel.

"There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected," Darvish said through his interpreter. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent."

"I thought he looked free and easy," Hoyer said. "He was throwing all his pitches. He ended with a split. I felt like if he's doing that, he feels pretty good. I thought his tempo was good. So all in all, I think that was positive."

Hoyer said if Darvish passes all the tests on Thursday, the next step could be a rehab outing Monday.

"I've been playing catch every week, and every time I do, I still have that good feeling from that game against Cincinnati," Darvish said of his last start on May 20, when he threw six innings against the Reds, giving up one run on two hits. "From that aspect, it didn't feel like it's been a month without pitching."

Video: CHC@CIN: Darvish strikes out 7, limits Reds to 1 run

The right-hander threw all of his pitches during his workout.

"Four-seam fastball was great," he said. "I don't think I had any problems with that. Slider, that was working well. Curveball and splitter, that's something I still need to work on, but I think that will get better as we go deeper."

The Cubs are hopeful Darvish can return to the rotation before the All-Star break.

"I think if things go smoothly and there's no setback, that's a strong possibility," Hoyer said. "We're not hurrying him back. I think with all of our guys, we want to have [Carl Edwards Jr.] back, [Brandon] Morrow back and Yu back. We have to play for hopefully seven months. Rushing the guy back and having him back on the DL doesn't do anyone any good.

"To us, it's about getting him back fully healthy and not using any one series or one game or one week to make those decisions."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Yu Darvish