Hector Rondon gave up a walkoff two-run homer to Cody Asche and the Cubs lost 7-5 to the Phillies Saturday night, a very dispiriting defeat.
But Rondon's performance isn't what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen in the seventh inning of this one.
Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill had done a good job on what had been designated "bullpen day." Wood allowed three hits and struck out five in three innings. Cahill retired all nine hitters he faced and, encouragingly, got several outs on ground balls. That's how Cahill was successful several years ago and if he can get back to that consistently, maybe he's a back of the rotation option next year.
Leading 1-0 on yet another Kyle Schwarber home run (his 16th in just 52 games), Joe Maddon summoned Justin Grimm to pitch the seventh inning. Grimm had two bad appearances out of his previous six (11.57 ERA, six runs in 4⅔ innings), but he's going to have to be good if the Cubs are going anywhere in the postseason, so this was the right call. At first.
Grimm struck out the first two hitters he faced. This is good. Then he walked Aaron Altherr, which is bad because Altherr, a rookie, had walked just four times in 82 previous plate appearances this season.
Grimm then got Andres Blanco to hit a ground ball to Anthony Rizzo, which should have ended the inning. Rizzo fumbled it while trying to get in position to flip to Grimm for an error, just his fifth error of the season. Hey, it happens. This loaded the bases, still with two out.
At this point Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sent Ryan Howard up to pinch-hit. Ryan Howard is a much worse hitter against lefthanded pitching than righthanded pitching: .282/.373/.565 career vs. RHP, .219/.296/.419 vs. LHP. This year it's even more extreme: .252/.302/.479 vs. RHP, .133/.181/.245 vs. LHP -- with 39 strikeouts in 98 at-bats vs. LHP.
Justin Grimm has thrown 20 pitches at this point.
Look, I admit I'm usually not a fan of the reflexive platoon-switching bullpen changes that most modern managers make. But this was a situation that screamed out for a lefthanded pitcher to be in the game.
Why was Justin Grimm left in to face Howard?
The result was predictable. Howard doubled in the tying run, and now there are runners on second and third, and yet another lefthanded hitter, Brian Bogusevic, is sent up to pinch-hit.
Why is Justin Grimm still in the game?
Grimm walked Bogusevic to load the bases. At this point Grimm has thrown 27 pitches and is clearly struggling. The Phillies send up a switch-hitting pinch-hitter, Darnell Sweeney, who has only 46 big-league at-bats but whose minor-league record shows him just about equally competent from each side of the plate.
Why is Justin Grimm still in this game? At this point just about anyone would have been better to face Sweeney than Grimm.
Grimm walked Sweeney, loading the bases, and finally Maddon comes to the mound to bring in lefthander Zac Rosscup to face Cesar Hernandez, another switch-hitter.
If you didn't see the game, you probably know what's coming. Hernandez hit Rosscup's first pitch into the left-center field gap and cleared the bases, making it 5-1 Phillies. All five runs were unearned thanks to Rizzo's error, but that didn't make this inning any less disastrous.
I'm usually fine with most of Joe Maddon's moves, but this inning was almost completely inexplicable. But maybe you'd rather not hear it from me -- maybe you'd rather hear it from Maddon:
"I know he's going to be very upset," Maddon said of Grimm. "I have all the confidence in the world in him. He's got to be good for us to get to where we want to be."
He's right about that, but still... I think when a reliever is obviously struggling and the situation screams out for a replacement, you replace him.
Give the Cubs credit. They roared right back from that 5-1 deficit to tie the game in the top of the eighth. Chris Coghlan drove in two of the runs with a double, Kris Bryant doubled in Coghlan and then Miguel Montero tied it with a sacrifice fly. Bryant advanced to third on that fly ball and then tried to score on a contact play ground ball to second base:
Well. I don't think MLB has ever properly clarified the "lane" catchers must give baserunners, and on this, Maddon and I agree:
Maddon said he never has agreed with the collision rule and was sure that Bryant's lane was blocked. "I don't want to get into that because I get into trouble every time," Maddon said. "But if that's not blocking the plate I don't know what is. There's a lot of ambiguities attached to (the rule)."
Sounds like more clarification is going to have to happen on that rule this offseason.
In the meantime, this game hurt, though not as much as it could have. The Cubs might have done better in this one if they could have solved Jerad Eickhoff, a rookie whose curveball seemed to mystify just about everyone except Schwarber. The loss prevented the Cubs from moving to within 4½ games of the Cardinals for first place, and it dropped them three games behind the Pirates for the top wild-card spot. The Cubs are still in fine shape for playoff position, as their magic number for clinching at least the second wild card remained at 13.
The Phillies' victory clinched the season series for Philadelphia over the Cubs. One of the best things about baseball is that you can come right back the next day after a tough loss like this one, and the Cubs can still win this series (and hopefully pick up ground on the Pirates and Cardinals) with a win Sunday afternoon. Dan Haren will face Aaron Harang . The game preview will post at 11 a.m. CT.