Often, there are moments in the season of a team headed to the playoffs where you look back and say, "That was the game that sent this team there, that defined who they are."
I was all ready to write that line after the Cubs made their stirring comeback Wednesday evening, and I decided to lead the recap of the Cubs' stunning 6-5 loss to the Cardinals with it anyway. This Cubs team might indeed be headed toward postseason play, and now they will have to shake off defeat in what could have been one of the most exciting comeback wins in recent franchise history.
"Stunning" isn't the only word I could use to describe Jhonny Peralta's two-out, two-strike, down-one-run homer off Pedro Strop in the ninth inning, but it's pretty much the only clean one. Strop had set Peralta up with two sliders, and then Peralta yanked a 95 mile per hour fastball barely into the first row in the left-field bleachers. Of the pitch, Strop said:
#Cubs Strop on Peralta HR: "I didn't think it was going to go out. It was a pitch -- I really don't know how he hit it."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 9, 2015
The home run sucked all the air out of a near-capacity crowd at Wrigley Field that had been more into a game than any crowd I'd seen since, probably, the 2008 playoff run. Looking back at the bleacher concourse behind the seats during the last couple of innings, there was no one standing ignoring the field, as is often the case. Everyone was in the seating area, many standing, almost no one had left the ballpark.
All of that is because the Cubs came back and took the lead after Jason Hammel left following the first inning with hamstring tightness and Clayton Richard got hit hard in three innings of relier, allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks. Hammel will have an MRI Thursday, but this does not sound good:
#Cubs Hammel said he felt pain on 2nd pitch of the game. "Every pitch afterword got tighter and tighter and more painful."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 9, 2015
The best-case scenario would be that Hammel feels better Thursday and the MRI shows no damage. If this is just a minor tweak, Hammel could go on the disabled list and miss just one start, as the rotation could be adjusted after the All-Star break. If it's worse than that... well, let's not think about that right now.
Travis Wood followed Richard and is the reason the Cubs were able to come back and take the lead. He had his best outing since moving to the bullpen, facing 10 batters and striking out five of them, allowing just one baserunner on a walk. The Cubs spent those three innings coming all the way back. They scored a pair in the fourth when the team's Home Run Derby participants, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, began with a single and double. Rizzo scored on Bryant's double and one out later, Starlin Castro singled in Bryant to make it 4-2. Unfortunately, Miguel Montero hit into an inning-ending double play.
Two innings later, the Cubs loaded the bases on three singles. The third, by Jorge Soler, bounced off Cardinals starter Michael Wacha. For the second time in three innings the Cubs had runners in scoring position with less than two out. Castro was called out on strikes, but Montero made up for his previous DP ball, big time, by smashing a double into the right-center field gap, clearing the bases and giving the Cubs a 5-4 lead. During that inning, both Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and manager Mike Matheny were ejected, apparently upset over ball-and-strike calls from plate umpire Pat Hoberg.
The sense of entitlement of the Cardinals is getting really irritating. They need to be knocked down a few notches. (No, I'm not suggesting throwing at their players -- just getting them to realize they're not simply going to be crowned kings of baseball.)
Hector Rondon, who had been up and down several times warming up for an inning or so, threw a 1-2-3 eighth with a pair of strikeouts. The Cubs again put two runners on in the bottom of the inning with only one out on a walk to Bryant and a single by Soler, but ex-Cub Miguel Socolovich ended that rally with a pair of strikeouts. During that inning Castro hit a ball down the left-field line that was ruled just foul, and upheld on review (it's pretty clear the right call was made):
Too bad, because if that ball is a couple of feet to the right and fair, two runs score and the Cubs probably win the game.
Here's why I wish Joe Maddon hadn't gone to Jason Motte in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader. Since Motte threw in both games, a total of 21 pitches, he was deemed unavailable for Wednesday night and Strop was assigned closing duties. Motte has, apparently, been designated as the Cubs' closer, even if Maddon hasn't come right out and said so, and he has been outstanding after a slow start. Motte has allowed runs in just two of his last 22 appearances for an 0.96 ERA and 0.750 WHIP over that span. But he couldn't go Wednesday, and it was up to Strop, who did a good job until walking Matt Carpenter with two out. Of that, Strop said:
#Cubs Strop on walking Carpenter: "I should've attacked him. Still, I had the opportunity to get it done."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 9, 2015
True enough, and he had Peralta down 1-2 before the home run. These kinds of things are going to happen, and I guess I won't get too down on Strop for this, and it will be interesting to watch the Cubs after Thursday's off day and see how they react going forward. It's good to have a manager like Maddon who is likely to find a creative and interesting way to get his players to shake off the toughest loss of the season and move forward.
Even after the Peralta homer, the Cubs had chances against Trevor Rosenthal in the bottom of the ninth. Chris Coghlan hit a ball very hard, but right at Peralta. Pinch-hitter Chris Denorfia slapped a ground ball that appeared headed to center field, but Pete Kozma made a spinning play on it and threw Denorfia out. Addison Russell then doubled into the gap in right-center, putting the tying run on second, but Dexter Fowler struck out to end it.
A split of this set is what I'd called for before it started and the Cubs got one, but it feels worse because they were so close to taking it. I think this team is resilient enough to put this one behind them and resume winning. Despite the defeat the Cubs are still tied for the sixth-best record in baseball and have a three-game lead for the second wild-card spot.
The weather was again awful, especially considering it's nearing mid-July. A light rainshower started in the second inning and lasted for an inning or so, but it never really stopped drizzling and by the late innings a fall-like mist was falling over Wrigley Field. It didn't seem to affect play, although I wouldn't have wanted to be a fielder looking up into it trying to catch a popup or fly ball. We're told it will be back in the 80s this weekend. I'll believe that when I see it; this is the coolest July 1-8 period since 1984. Hmmm. 1984. A Cubs playoff year. We could take weather like this in exchange for a return trip to the postseason, right?
To circle back to the beginning of this recap, even though the Cubs lost this game, we will likely remember it for a long, long time. In the end, let's hope it's a memory of a loss that spurred the 2015 Cubs toward a long, long winning streak. Meanwhile, the Cubs bid the Cardinals farewell for almost two months. The next time the teams meet will be Labor Day, September 7, in St. Louis.
Friday, the White Sox come to Wrigley to begin a three-game series leading to the All-Star break. The first game of the set features Kyle Hendricks facing Carlos Rodon.