The Cubs' 5-4 loss to the Reds Monday night turned on a pitching change, one that had to be made, but one that became the team's undoing.
Clayton Richard had thrown reasonably well, but in the sixth inning the Cubs were clinging to a 4-3 lead and it was decision time. After Richard got Joey Votto to hit into a double play, Todd Frazier was the next scheduled hitter. Frazier had already homered off Richard, so even though Richard's pitch count was a reasonable 70, Joe Maddon went to Justin Grimm. I sometimes quibble with Maddon's overuse of relievers (the Cubs lead the league in relief appearances with 307), but this one was the right call.
Unfortunately, Grimm walked Frazier. The Cubs don't really have a LOOGY -- James Russell and Travis Wood are generally saved for longer outings -- so Grimm was left in to face Jay Bruce.
Bruce, who is hotter than July, homered to give the Reds the 5-4 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Reds should never have been in position to do that, because the Cubs wasted quite a number of scoring opportunities.
The one I'm thinking of in particular is the fifth inning -- when the Cubs scored three runs. But they could have had more. After Addison Russell singled to lead off the inning, Dexter Fowler followed with a single to right-center. Russell took third, but Fowler ill-advisedly tried to stretch the single into a double and was thrown out by Billy Hamilton. Since the inning then went on to include a walk drawn by Kyle Schwarber and doubles by Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler, the Cubs might have been able to put the game far out of reach if not for Fowler's TOOTBLAN.
The Cubs might have also scored some runs in the seventh if not for the spectacular play Brandon Phillips and Eugenio Suarez made on a Soler ground ball that appeared headed up the middle for a hit. Instead, it ended the inning. Give those guys credit -- that was one of the best plays I've seen all year.
It is, though, good to see Fowler starting to hit again. He had two hits and drew two walks and is 7-for-16 with seven walks over his last five games. That's raised his OBP by 18 points over that span, which isn't easy to do when you've got this much baseball in the books. If Fowler can continue this kind of hitting (or even at a slightly lower level, you can't keep up a .609 OBP forever), he'll be the leadoff guy the Cubs thought they were getting.
Starlin Castro, on the other hand... I wish I knew what was wrong with him. He's had major-league success before and had a good year last year. He went 0-for-4 in this game and, when the Cubs had a real chance to tie the game in the eighth inning, could produce no more than a base-advancing fly ball after Chris Coghlan had led off the inning with a double. Joe Maddon has tried just about everything with Castro, giving him a day off, changing his batting-order position. I'm not sure what else can be done at this point.
Rafael Soriano made his Cubs debut and threw a scoreless eighth inning, but not until after he'd made his own jam by walking Votto and giving up a ground-rule double to Bruce, a double I thought would be lucky for the Cubs because it saved a run (Votto would have scored easily had the ball not gone into the seats). Soriano then made a nice defensive play on a comebacker, running right at Votto and eventually throwing to Bryant for the out. Having not watched much of Soriano before, my impression of him is that he works very slowly and deliberately. It must work for him as he's had quite a bit of big-league success, but we aren't used to seeing a reliever work quite that slowly.
I was most surprised to see Aroldis Chapman in this game after he had thrown 44 pitches on Sunday. But Chapman still had his 100-plus fastball and it took him just 13 pitches to finish off the Cubs in order for his 19th save. Only Bryant managed to put the ball in play, hitting a line drive right at Hamilton. Kyle Schwarber, who looked overmatched against Chapman, struck out, and so did Anthony Rizzo.
The Cubs really need to win games like this one, especially after taking mid-inning leads. It doesn't help when you go 2-for-11 with RISP and leave nine men on base. Six more walks, for the second straight game, raised the team total to 313, or 3.44 per game. The Cubs are on pace for 557 walks, which would be their best season total since 2009. That's good, but they've got to start turning these into runs. Lots of runs.
Regarding Richard, I dunno. He didn't pitch all that badly, probably getting another chance to start (though, with Thursday's off day, they could skip the fifth starter's turn next time around). But the Cubs should also be looking to upgrade the rotation, even though it's been one of the best in baseball.
They'll try it again this evening, with Jason Hammel facing Raisel Iglesias.