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Lack of contact, bullpen failings roar to forefront in (another) Cubs loss to Mets

NEW YORK -- Maybe this was all forecast before the Chicago Cubs' 4-3 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday night. Two main topics of conversation regarding the visitors were trade acquisitions for their bullpen and Chicago's inability to make enough contact, both last October -- against these Mets in the playoffs -- and more recently.

Cubs president Theo Epstein addressed the first issue, saying a trade wasn’t imminent, though he acknowledged there usually are a few players who get moved right around the international signing period in early July. For example, Fernando Rodney was acquired by the Miami Marlins from San Diego on Thursday, but the Cubs were not interested, according to manager Joe Maddon. Speaking of Maddon, he addressed the second issue: lack of contact.

“Our primary problem last year was our inability to make contact against a group of [their] pitchers that were really on top of their game,” Maddon said of his team's struggles in the National League Championship Series, which the Mets swept. “For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact. May was not as kind, June we’re falling backwards. We have to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern.”

That concern, as well as the bullpen issues, came to the forefront again as the Cubs failed to score the tying run Thursday night despite putting men on second and third with none out in the ninth inning. That came a couple of innings after starter John Lackey was pulled -- much to his dismay -- in favor of 40-year-old Joel Peralta, who almost immediately gave up the lead, helped by a Javier Baez throwing error after Pedro Strop took over in that decisive seventh.

“In my mind’s eye, when you get people on the team, they’re there for a certain reason,” Maddon said of Peralta afterward. “That was a good spot for Joel.”

A walk and a base hit ended Peralta’s night quickly; in the ninth, a strikeout by Kris Bryant followed by another from Willson Contreras helped end the Cubs' night. Baez popped up for out No. 3.

“Contreras and Baez have not seen that stuff on any kind of a regular basis,” Maddon said.

The Cubs manager is right. Though Mets closer Jeurys Familia gave up a hard-hit double to Ben Zobrist in the ninth, his stuff got real nasty after that. And you just might have assumed Bryant would come through with at least a fly ball, but even the best players strike out in key spots. Earlier, Bryant hit his 22nd home run of the season while driving in runs Nos. 59 and 60. It’s hard to get down on him for missing a 98 mph sinker.

“It’s a good pitch,” Bryant said. “It’s kind of like a 98 mph lefty cutter. I mean, good luck.”

Luck wasn’t on the Cubs' side in the ninth, but as much as you might fret that they couldn’t get a run across with none out, that's going to happen sometimes, especially with young players. The bigger concern remains the bullpen. Blowing games as the relief corps just did is extra demoralizing. No wonder Lackey wanted to stay in.

“Yeah, I was pretty surprised by that one [being pulled],” Lackey said. “I lost the feel for a couple hitters [in the fifth]. Sixth inning I got it back going. Got a runner on first with an out [before being pulled]. Yeah, pretty surprised.

“When you feel like you gave one away or let one go, that’s a different kind of loss.”

Peralta is just the latest to try out for a prominent role in the pen, and right now he’s getting a failing grade. He gave up a home run to Joey Votto in his Cubs debut Monday, got a fortunate, line-drive double play a day later, and now this. And if you think the fix is going to come with a snap of Epstein's fingers, think again. Andrew Miller of the Yankees isn’t coming from across town anytime soon.

“It’s pretty rare you build a bullpen midseason with big-ticket items,” Epstein said. “You don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

In other words, the Cubs aren’t going to hold out for that megadeal (they might get it later), so in the meantime they’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Epstein reeled off the names of a bunch of players in the organization, from Joe Nathan to former Met Jack Leathersich to former Oriole Brian Matusz. Some aren’t household names, and they’re not ready yet, anyway. That’s when a smaller deal from outside the organization could and should be had. But it takes two to tango.

“Usually if something seems like a pipe dream, it usually is,” Epstein said of trades.

And just to put an exclamation mark on the conversation, he emphatically committed to seeing Kyle Schwarber “in a Cubs uniform” on Opening Day next season. Schwarber's not going anywhere. The same can’t be said of the arms in the bullpen. Peralta is probably already on thin ice.

“His velocity is good,” Maddon said. “The split, he’s either making a good one or stuffing it. He’s putting it right into the ground.”

Ball four from Peralta to Mets pinch hitter Alejandro De Aza went right into the ground in the seventh inning, which began the merry-go-round for the hosts. And whereas before the game Epstein didn't see a trade in the immediate future, afterward his answer might be different. There’s a large portion of the fan base hoping that’s the case.

“We can take a weakness and try to improve that,” Epstein said. “Also, sometimes you can take a strength and make it stronger. That works, too.”

Let’s start with the weakness.