One of the reasons for the Cubs' better play this month has been the bullpen. It's been a significant improvement over 2013 in particular. Hector Rondon has been one of the reasons behind that good play, as he had blown just two save opportunities since being made closer at the beginning of May.
Monday night wasn't a save situation, as the game was tied when he entered in the top of the ninth. And Rondon recorded the first two outs easily.
That's when things blew up. Pinch-hitter Chris Heisey blooped a single into right field. He stole second and scored on a Billy Hamilton single. Another single and a walk to Joey Votto loaded the bases and you had a feeling what was coming next and that feeling, sadly, turned out to be true when Devin Mesoraco launched a ball into the bleachers in left-center for a grand slam.
The Reds thus defeated the Cubs 6-1 in one of those games that really was "closer than the score indicated," their 18th win in their last 20 tries at Wrigley Field. You are not reading that wrong: eighteen Cincinnati wins over the Cubs, just two Cubs wins, in the last twenty meetings of the two teams in Chicago. Maybe the Cubs should make the Reds wear throwback uniforms or something, anything to change things up.
Before that slam, Jeff Samardzija and Alfredo Simon locked up in a pretty good pitchers' duel. Shark got in trouble in the first inning when the first two hitters, Hamilton and Todd Frazier, smacked extra-base hits, leading to a run. But after that Samardzija settled down, allowing only two more hits, a pair of walks, and two hit-by-pitches (both to Mesoraco, who didn't have an official at-bat until his slam) through six. He had to be lifted after that time because he'd thrown 107 pitches, partly a legacy of a 23-pitch first inning. Brian Schlitter and Pedro Strop kept the game tied until Rondon's implosion in the ninth.
Simon, meanwhile, mowed Cubs down even more efficiently. Just three Cubs made it past first base until Anthony Rizzo hit his 16th homer, in the sixth inning, tying the game at 1. That doesn't tell the whole story, though; the story is that the Cubs had runners in scoring position in both the third and fourth innings with no one out and failed to score. In the fourth, Rizzo singled and Starlin Castro doubled him to third, but none of the next three hitters could plate either runner. That, probably more so than Rondon, was the story of this game. Samardzija was particularly upset at himself in the third, when Darwin Barney's ivy-eaten double led off the inning. Shark popped up his bunt attempt and then broke his bat over his knee. The Cubs had plenty of baserunners all night -- nine hits and a walk -- but went 0-for-6 with RISP. You've heard this story before.
Not sure what the Cubs have to do in order to beat the Reds in their home park. They seem to do all right against the Cardinals, for example, but bring in the visitors from Cincinnati and suddenly the "L" flag is at the ready. It's weird.
Rizzo, incidentally, is now tied for fourth in the National League in home runs, but leads the circuit in homers since April 30 (13, including one on that date). His 16 dingers in 74 team games puts him on pace for 35. There have been only two seasons in all of Cubs history when a lefthanded hitter has hit 35 or more homers, both by Billy Williams (42 in 1970, 37 in 1972). Since 1972, only four Cub lefthanded hitters have hit even as many as 30 in a year (Rick Monday, 32 in 1976; Rick Wilkins, 30 in 1993;, 31 in 1998; and Fred McGriff, 30 in 2002). The only Cubs lefty batter to hit 30 in a season before Williams (who hit 30 or more five times) was Bill Nicholson, who had 33 in 1944.
If you were wondering where BCBer Ryan Kasten was during the game threads Monday night, he was sitting with our group in the bleachers. He hasn't had much luck seeing Cubs wins in person and wanted to take at least some of the blame. He's intending to return Tuesday night, too, when the two teams match up again. Jake Arrieta, who's been one of the hottest pitchers in the major leagues the last few weeks, will take on Homer Bailey.