CHICAGO – The Braves got a vintage Tim Hudson pitching performance Wednesday at Wrigley Field, but it went wasted in a 1-0 loss to the Cubs.
They didn’t hit a lot of balls hard against left-hander Paul Maholm. And on most occasions when they did, there was usually Cubs defender waiting to snag it. Sometimes in the darndest places.
Tweaked defensive alignments and Maholm’s craftiness helped Chicago beat the Braves in a game that lasted barely two hours and gave the last-place Cubs a series win over the Braves.
“The shift won them the game today,” said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who had two potential hits taken away by defenders aligned out of position, yet perfectly positioned. “It lost them the game last night. So, you live with it you’re going to die by it.”
Hudson (1-1) allowed one run on five hits and no walks and threw just 73 pitches before he was removed for pinch-hitter Tyler Pastornicky in the eighth inning after the Cubs scored a run in the seventh on Bryan LaHair’s two-out groundball single through the left side when the Braves were in a shift of their own.
“It’s disappointing,” said Hudson, a veteran sinkerballer who bounced back strong from Friday’s rough start at Coors Field. “I was making some pretty good pitches. The best I’ve felt this year. I feel like we should have won the game, even though their guy was throwing the ball well. I felt like we should have come out on top.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “Huddy was outstanding. So much that if he would have come out of the seventh inning with no runs, I was thinking about letting him hit in the eighth, because he was that dominant.”
Pastornicky struck out to lead off the eighth, and Dan Uggla flied out with two runners on to end the inning.
After pounding out 42 hits and 29 runs in their three-game sweep against the Rockies at Colorado, the Braves totaled 19 hits and four runs in three games against the Cubs, losing two. They are 4-2 on a nine-game trip that will finish with a three-game series at St. Louis beginning Friday.
Maholm (4-2) allowed three hits and three walks in seven innings and won his four consecutive start while allowing one or no runs. After giving up six runs in four innings in each of his first two this season, he’s 4-0 with a 1.07 ERA in his past four.
“Maholm kept us off-balance,” Gonzalez said. “I thought we had some balls hit right at people with people in scoring position. They did a nice job defending us there.”
He handled the Braves much as he did previously when he pitched for the Pirates. Maholm is 2-1 with a career-best 1.34 ERA in seven starts against the Braves, and 60-88 with a 4.39 ERA in 210 starts against everyone else.
“I tell you what, those lefties that just don’t ever really give in, the soft lefties with cutters and change-ups, who never really give you that heater to hit, we struggle with [them] a little bit,” Ross said. “He had good stuff. We hit some balls hard. I thought they were real lucky with positioning today. I thought Chipper Jones could have had four hits.”
With runners on the corners and two out in the sixth, Jones hit a line drive up the middle that was caught by second baseman Darwin Barney standing directly behind the base.
“That’s how the game’s played,” Barney said of the shift defenses the Cubs use on a regular basis. “If guys want to force the ball through that hole, our feeling is we’ll let them do it.”
Maholm’s teams have scored just one run while he’s been in five of his starts against the Braves, and two runs while he was in the others.
“He’s a guy that’s going to keep you off-balance,” Jones said. “When you get your opportunities you’ve got to take advantage of them. We thought we did, but we hit right into the shift. So give him his due, he pitched well.”
Cubs manager Dale Sveum has used shift defenses all season.
“Through technology, through video, when a guy’s going to hit a ball 90 percent of the time in one specific area, you’re going to play there,” he said. “If you get beat 10 percent of the time, i can live with that.”
Ross said it was a particularly tough loss to swallow given how Hudson pitched in his third start since returning from the disabled list.
“He shouldn’t have given up a hit,” Ross said. “He was as dominant as ever. Stuff-wise, he was as good as I’ve ever caught him. Four years here, nobody’s thrown the ball like he was throwing. It stinks we didn’t score for him.”
The Braves had shifts work against them both at the plate and in the field. The Cubs scored when LaHair, a left-handed pull hitter, hit a groundball the other way, to the left side. It went just past the outstretched glove of shortstop Jack Wilson, who had been positioned near second base.
If Wilson had been in his usual position, it might have been a routine groundout. Hudson didn’t know the shift was on.
“The way my sinker was going today, it would have been hard to pull it,” he said. “But [LeHair] did hit some off-speed pitches for a base hit up the middle in his first at-bat, and he pulled a curveball to the first baseman, so…. It obviously didn’t work out for us this time, but that’s just how the ball bounces sometimes. No pun intended. They had the breaks and they won the game.”