ATLANTA -- The Cubs had the Braves right where they wanted them. After six strong innings from starter Jon Lester, manager Joe Maddon had his best relievers lined up and ready to shut the door on Wednesday night in Atlanta.
But, as has become all too common in the early going, the Cubs couldn’t finish things out. Four relievers in the eighth inning could not find the strike zone, and the bullpen blew its third lead in four games as Chicago fell, 6-4, at SunTrust Park.
“The games that we’ve lost, we’ve had one bad moment out of the bullpen,” Maddon said. “It’s a game we should have won, and I’ve said that way too many times. We’ve got to put those games in the win column. It’s frustrating for everybody. The ducks were in a row, and it didn’t play out.”
Things looked fine immediately after Lester’s exit, with right-hander Brandon Kintzler tossing a 1-2-3 seventh inning, but it all fell apart quickly. Righty Steve Cishek was excellent in his first two games with the Cubs, but he loaded the bases on three consecutive walks before getting the hook. Randy Rosario came in looking for a double play ball, but he left a 1-0 fastball over the plate, and Johan Camargo punished him with a bases-clearing double.
Brad Brach tried to stop the bleeding, but he allowed another run to score on a Dansby Swanson sacrifice fly, only throwing five strikes in 16 pitches. Mike Montgomery finally put the inning to rest but, by then, the Cubs had spotted the Braves a two-run lead that they could not overcome.
All in all, Cubs relievers threw just 10 of 35 pitches for strikes in the eighth, leading to five walks. It was seemingly contagious from the start, when Cishek threw 12 of 15 pitches out of the zone, most of them not particularly close.
“I don’t know what happened,” Cishek said. “I was focused, ready to go. I was just fighting myself mechanically. I couldn’t make that fine adjustment for whatever reason tonight, and it was a tough one.”
Chicago’s bullpen has sputtered to start the year, although it is missing closer Brandon Morrow with an injured right elbow. Cubs relievers have given up 18 runs in 17 1/3 innings this season with 18 hits, 17 walks and 20 strikeouts.
The blown lead nullified yet another great outing to start the year for Lester, who threw six innings and allowed only two runs for the second-straight start. In the last five seasons, Lester has 69 starts of at least six innings and two or fewer runs, which leads all southpaws. But beyond his presence on the mound, Lester gave a complete performance with one of the best offensive games of his career.
Lester jumpstarted Chicago’s offense in the second inning when he blooped a one-out single to right-center field to drive in the game’s first run. He also added a pair of walks later in the game -- after drawing no walks in all of 2018 -- first game of reaching base three times. Still, the only other offense the rest of the game came on a two-run Willson Contreras homer in the sixth and Anthony Rizzo’s score on a wild pitch the next inning.
“We all want to get off to a good start,” Lester said. “I think what we’re doing a little bit right now is maybe just trying to press and do too much. Everybody’s trying to come in and, whether it be a hitting situation or a pitching situation, be the guy. That’s hard to do over 162 games. I think we put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start that it’s kind of hanging over our heads a little bit. We just need to get back to being us.”