If I had told you, before Wednesday's game, that Dan Haren would pitch decently for five innings but give up a couple of solo homers and that Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber would also homer, you'd have felt pretty good about the Cubs' chances to win this game, right?
That didn't take into account the Cubs' bullpen, which had one of its rare recent bad outings in a a 7-5 loss to the Pirates that snapped the team's six-game winning streak.
Haren struggled through the first inning, allowing a leadoff homer to Gregory Polanco and then a one-out single and walk. He got Jung Ho Kang to hit a potential double-play grounder to Kris Bryant, but Bryant bobbled the ball and everyone was safe. Eventually, that led to another run on a single by Neil Walker, and it could have been worse except that Chris Denorfia threw Aramis Ramirez out at the plate. But more significantly, the missed double-play chance forced Haren to throw 13 extra pitches in the inning, which meant he wound up being lifted after five innings (though, as noted below, he'd likely have been out of the game anyway at that point due to needing a pinch-hitter).
The Cubs eventually went down 4-1 entering the sixth inning, partly due to some further sketchy defensive play. In the bottom of the fifth with the score 3-1 Bucs, Starling Marte was on second base with two out. Ramirez hit a ball in that halfway area between short and third. Bryant looked like he had the best route to the ball, but Starlin Castro came up behind Bryant and Bryant pulled off the ball, which went into left field for an RBI single. No error was charged, but now you can count up two Pirates runs that scored due to fielding mishaps.
But in that sixth inning, Schwarber and Rizzo pulled out the heavy lumber. Schwarber homered off Jeff Locke after Dexter Fowler walked to make it 4-3, and one out later Rizzo's blast into the right-field seats tied the game. The Cubs then put together a nice two-out rally attempt against the Pirates' bullpen. Jorge Soler singled and Castro and Denorfia walked to load the bases.
So then it's Haren's turn to bat. Haren's a good hitter -- for a pitcher -- but that's an obvious pinch-hitting situation, so Chris Coghlan hit for Haren. Unfortunately, with the chance to give the Cubs the lead, Coghlan grounded out meekly to end the inning.
And then the bullpen failed. Travis Wood got hit hard in the sixth and the Pirates took the lead back with a pair of runs, and I'm not sure what Joe Maddon was thinking when he let Jason Motte, who had thrown one decent inning, come out to being a second inning of work in the eighth. A triple by Francisco Cervelli and single by Sean Rodriguez (who I wish the Cubs had signed in the offseason -- he's exactly the type of player Joe Maddon loves) made it 7-4. James Russell cleaned up the mess, but the three-run lead seemed insurmountable.
The Cubs did manage some offense off Pirates closer Mark Melancon, who entered the game leading the major leagues with 33 saves (and only one blown save). Castro singled and Matt Szczur doubled and the Cubs had runners on second and third with one out, with Addison Russell representing the tying run at the plate. Russell grounded out and Castro scored. This was the first earned run Melancon had allowed since May 11, a span of 34 appearances (he'd allowed an unearned run once during that time, on June 5). But Melancon struck out Fowler to end the game and the Cubs' winning streak.
As far as Haren's performance, this is pretty much what we might have expected. Solo homers, but after that, not-bad baseball for a few innings. You'd like to get six innings out of him consistently to save the pen, though. Some dodgy ball-and-strike calls didn't help, but I've probably belabored the robot-umpire issue enough here. You certainly know how I feel about that.
I take solace in the fact that the Cubs had an excellent 5-1 road trip and their 31-24 road record still represents the most road wins of any N.L. team. But they are simply going to have to get better bullpen work, especially playing playoff-contending teams, as they will be doing this weekend. But one of the things I am also finding, personally, as the Cubs contend themselves for the first time in several seasons, that I am beginning to take the losses harder. While this team isn't necessarily the perennial contender that we all want -- yet -- they've got an excellent chance to get into the postseason tournament, and as we saw just a year ago, once you get in, anything can happen.
The Cubs' offense generated enough hits (eight) and walks (three) to generate five runs Wednesday night, but 0-for-6 with RISP isn't going to cut it, and Coghlan's failure with the bases loaded was the turning point of this game. They can't afford many turning points like that playing the Giants for the next four days. The Giants have been a streaky team all year and will come to Wrigley having split the first six games of their road trip, losing two of three in Texas, winning two of three in Atlanta. Jason Hammel will face rookie righthander Chris Heston.
Pennant-race baseball in Wrigley? Awesome. Bring it on.