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Cubs slam Braves bullpen in series opener

CHICAGO – Pitching prospect Aaron Blair gave the Braves a good chance to win in his major league debut last week against the Mets, and an even better chance to win in his second start Friday against the Cubs.

But after Freddie Freeman homered for the second time in three days to give the Braves a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning, they wasted a bases-loaded, no-outs opportunity in the seventh inning of a tied game, and soon watched one of their own pitchers get torched again with the bases full.

Matt Szczur’s eighth-inning grand slam off reliever Chris Withrow sent the Cubs to a 6-1 win in a series opener at Wrigley Field. It was the fourth slam allowed by Braves pitchers — only two other teams allowed two before Friday — and the third slam they allowed in eight days.

The Braves (5-18) added another “L” to their franchise record for most April losses since at least 1900.

“Everybody fought hard,” Blair said. “That’s what it comes down to. Next time we’ll get them.”

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Ah, the optimism of youth.

Blair got no decision after allowing only two hits and one run in six innings, with three walks and three strikeouts. Rated the Braves’ No. 3 prospect by Baseball America, he gave up six hits and three earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of a 3-2 loss Sunday to the Mets at Turner Field.

“Outstanding,” Freeman said of the prospect’s performance. “He was impressive the first start. Now he’s just even more impressive the second start. This environment — day game, packed house at Wrigley, he definitely calmed the nerves and went out there and shut them down.”

Blair’s first road start came on a cloudy, breezy, 44-degree day before 34,007 at Wrigley Field, against a Cubs team whose 17-5 record is the best by a National League team since the San Francisco Giants were 18-4 in 2003. He walked two of the the first three batters, but then retired the next 11 before Javier Baez’s leadoff double in the fifth — the Cubs’ first hit.

One out later, former Braves catcher David Ross’ single brought in the tying run.

The Braves got out of a jam in the seventh when reliever Alexi Ogando intentionally walked Addison Russell to load the bases for Ross, who grounded into an inning-ending double play. But in the eighth, three of the first four hitters reached on a double, a walk and a single against Jim Johnson (0-3), whose alert throw to third on a bunt accounted for his only out in that span.

After lefy Eric O’Flaherty allowed a run-scoring single by Anthony Rizzo to put the Cubs ahead 2-1, Withrow gave up a grand slam to the first batter he faced to put the game out of reach.

“We walk the (seventh) hitter to face Rossy, which is not easy to do, and we turn a double play,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But we couldn’t get out of back-to-back bases-loaded situations, and they got us for a big number there in the eighth inning.”

After Jeff Francoeur led off the seventh with a single and advanced on wild pitch, Cubs starter Jon Lester walked Tyler Flowers, one of only two walks issued by the veteran left-hander, who collected 10 strikeouts in seven innings.

When Eric Aybar tried to advance both runners with a bunt, Lester fielded it and couldn’t get the ball out of his glove when he turned toward first base. The Braves seemingly had Lester on the ropes, with bases loaded and none out.

But when a ball put in play almost anywhere would’ve scored a run, Drew Stubbs struck out swinging on an eight-pitch at-bat, shouting at himself in frustration as he walked toward the dugout. Next up was pinch-hitter Jace Peterson, who was 10-for-18 with the bases loaded in his career (with six extra-base hits and 25 RBIs) when the left-handed hitter strode to the plate to face the Lester (the Braves had no right-hander to pinch-hit there). Peterson struck out on four pitches, looking at the third strike.

It was up to Nick Markakis, who led the majors with a .531 average with runners on base before Friday, including .545 (12-for-22) with runners in scoring position. After he was visibly upset with the umpire over a second strike that replays showed was several inches inside, Markakis grounded out to end the inning.

“It’s tough when (Lester) has got that cutter and his sinker command like he did today,” Freeman said. “And he dropped the curveball whenever he wanted to. He made the pitches when he needed to in that inning, bases loaded and no outs. To get out of that, it’s why he’s Jon Lester. That was the inning we needed to capitalize, but that’s why they gave him a lot of money, to get out of those kind of innings.”

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