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Cardinals 8, Cubs 4: Bullpen Meltdown Ends Winning Streak At 11

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The streak wasn't going to last forever, but it ended in particularly ugly fashion.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Is it too late to get Joe Nathan back to help out the Cubs' bullpen?

Because the Joe Smith Experiment can, I think, be judged a failure after his appearance Saturday. (I had even said to my friend Mike, when Smith began loosening up in the bullpen: "This sight" -- pointing to Smith -- "does not fill me with confidence.")

After Carl Edwards Jr. had thrown to seven batters in the eighth inning, walked four of them and wild-pitched a run in (and would have done that a second time if the ball hadn't bounced right back to Willson Contreras), Smith entered with two out, the bases loaded and the Cubs trailing 4-2.

Boom! Randal Grichuk hit Smith's second pitch into the left-field bleachers for a grand slam, putting the game out of reach. The Cubs scored a couple of consolation runs in the ninth, but the 8-4 loss to the Cardinals snapped their winning streak at 11. That makes the streak finish up as the longest Cubs winning streak in 15 years, and they still lead the N.L. Central over the second-place Cardinals by 13 games.

Smith, though... man, he's been just terrible. That makes five appearances for him, 3⅓ innings pitched, six hits, two walks (2.400 WHIP) and three home runs allowed. I mean... Nathan couldn't possibly be worse than that, right? The Cubs gave up very little for Smith, an A-ball lottery ticket, and he wasn't likely going to be on the postseason roster. So why not release him and bring Nathan back? (I assume, due to the DFA rules, they'd have to wait till he clears waivers, then release him and re-sign him.)

Joe Maddon summed up the issue thusly:

That's exactly right, and though that says Hector Rondon is "good for tomorrow," he wasn't even in the bullpen Saturday afternoon. Aroldis Chapman was there, I suppose to throw the ninth even in a tie game, but instead, he sat and watched one of the worst meltdowns I've seen. Edwards, who had walked just five hitters in 19 innings before this game, simply couldn't find the zone. The wild pitch that scored the Cardinals' first run of the eighth was on a strikeout -- there were actually two out at the time of that K of Yadier Molina, and maybe that was the time to get Edwards out of there, as he had already issued two walks and given up a hit, in addition to the wild pitch.

This game is a lesson, as Maddon noted, and hopefully Rondon's fine and can lock down the eighth inning in future games.

All of this ruined an outstanding outing by Kyle Hendricks, marred just by two solo homers, one by Brandon Moss, the other by Jedd Gyorko. Over the first five innings, Hendricks faced 19 batters and only nine of them hit fair balls. Hendricks wound up with 12 strikeouts, matching his career high, and most of them were on changeups. He had Cardinals hitters off balance all afternoon with his excellent pitch selection and location. Unfortunately, occasionally his lack of velocity will allow hard contact, and that's what happened in this one. However, the two homers were a fairly rare event for Hendricks:

And then there's this:

And this:

Yes, it is. Without a doubt, it is. It looked like Addison Russell's two-run homer in the second inning (setting a career high with 14) would hold up as Hendricks was dealing. The homer's worth another look:

And so are a couple of fine defensive plays by Kris Bryant:

The Cubs did have a chance to break the game open after Russell's homer, with runners on first and third with one out and Hendricks at bat, but Hendricks' attempt at a safety squeeze wound up with Contreras tagged out at the plate.

And, just for a tiny moment, it appeared the Cubs might make a miracle rally in the ninth inning. The first three hitters all singled, and a throwing error by Cardinals reliever Seth Maness scored a run. Zach Duke was summoned, and he retired all three hitters he faced to end it, with a second run scoring on a groundout. Credit to the Cubs for not quitting when down six runs in the bottom of the ninth, but coming back from deficits like that is pretty much impossible.

I hope management is considering the future of the back end of the bullpen, and Smith isn't it. If not Nathan coming back, perhaps Trevor Cahill, who's still likely starting one of the doubleheader games Tuesday, can take his bullpen spot back.

So, with the winning streak over, the Cubs can attend to the business of starting another streak of victories beginning Sunday night, when they can still take three of four in this series against the Cardinals with a win. The season series between the two rivals is tied at six wins each right now, and even with this loss, the Cubs have outscored the Redbirds 62-48 in the 12 games.

John Lackey goes for the Cubs Sunday, with Mike Leake starting for the Cardinals. Don't forget this is ESPN's featured Sunday night game, at 7:05 p.m. CT. The game preview posts tomorrow at 5 p.m. CT.