Cubs learn what can happen when Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester each struggle

SAN FRANCISCO -- A bad Jon Lester start combined with an Anthony Rizzo slump is a rarity these days for the Chicago Cubs, but both contributed to a 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, a loss that dropped the Cubs to 4-6 in their past 10 games.

It has been a step forward followed by a step back lately. That is something the Cubs predicted.

“If anyone thought we were going to win 140 games, I want to know what they’re taking,” Rizzo said. “You can’t ride the highs too high. I don’t think any of us did, and none of us are going to ride the lows too low.”

It makes sense, but a little consistency would be nice. Rizzo has been as streaky as anyone this season, and right now, he’s going the other way after an 0-for-5 day. He’s 1-for-19 on the road trip, which has coincided with the Cubs' first mini-slump of the season.

“Balls really not falling for me at this moment,” Rizzo said. “It’s a little frustrating for me. I think I’ve been really good with my approach.”

We’ll have to take Rizzo’s word for it, as he knows his swing better than anyone, but one might wonder how the Cubs are 29-12 with their perennial MVP candidate hitting .245.

The answer would start and end with their starting staff. The Cubs' starting pitchers have been so reliable that manager Joe Maddon almost always knows he won’t have to get a reliever up until at least the sixth inning. That wasn’t the case for Lester on Saturday, as he simply got hit hard. The worst hitter in the Giants' lineup, pitcher Matt Cain, got him, as did the best, Buster Posey.

Cain had a two-run double in the second, and Posey blasted a two-run homer to make it 4-1 Giants in the third. Lester was done before the inning was over.

“Bad location,” Lester said. “The times I was able to get ahead, I couldn’t put any guys away. Just a lot of bad situations I put myself in.”

Lester wouldn’t commit to being squeezed by plate umpire Greg Gibson, causing him to throw more hittable pitches. Instead, he focused on himself and claimed he couldn’t “put the ball where he wanted to.”

Squeezed or not, Lester's pitches didn’t have the life previously seen from him this year. That said, Lester's ERA is now 2.60.

“Jonny had a tough day,” Maddon said. “It just didn’t want to work out for him. … Jon wasn’t on top of his game, but otherwise, we did a lot of good things.”

One thing the Cubs did was claw back into the game, thanks to 5 1/3 innings of scoreless pitching by their bullpen. A key moment came in the eighth inning, when the Cubs, trailing by three, had two runners on with two outs. Maddon chose to bat righty Tim Federowicz, who is hitting .182, instead of veteran left-hander Miguel Montero, against Giants lefty Javier Lopez. The result might have been predictable: Federowicz struck out to end the threat.

“It’s a tough spot to put him into,” Maddon said. “I have faith in the guy. The guy is a good baseball player. I felt good about him going up there.”

There’s always a whipping boy, even on the good teams, and right now, Federowicz might be it for Cubs fans. But when Lester is off his game and Rizzo is slumping, it’s hard to point the finger at the No. 3 catcher and blame him.

Let’s return to Rizzo’s initial point and the fact that the winning pace has slowed. The glass-half-full approach would say 4-6 as a worst stretch isn’t all that bad. The Cubs could slide further with Madison Bumgarner facing them Sunday night, while the Cubs counter with their No. 5 pitcher, Kyle Hendricks.

But nothing has changed the spirit in the locker room -- not even another injury, this time to Jason Heyward on Friday. This is hardly a big skid.

“The best part is we believe we’re going to come back,” Rizzo said.

The Cubs nearly did Saturday, but it wasn’t good enough. Comebacks aren’t needed if the starter is doing his job. For 48 straight games, the Cubs got that from their pitchers, with all of them lasting five or more innings.

“A lot of things in that game I wish I could go back out and rethink through or throw another pitch, but it is what it is,” Lester said.

Now the Cubs have to start a new streak.