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Cubs 5, Nationals 4: Nats’ bullpen meltdown gives the Cubs a big win

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The Cubs’ bullpen blew a lead. And then the Nats’ pen returned the favor.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve had to rewrite the lede to this recap several times, as you might imagine, and I couldn’t be happier to do so.

The Cubs put together a three-run rally in the ninth inning of Thursday afternoon’s game, sparked by guys who generally don’t play much — Jeimer Candelario, Tommy La Stella and Jon Jayand came from behind to beat the Nationals 5-4 after blowing leads of 1-0 and 2-1, and got a well-earned split in their series. The Nats have been well-known for bullpen failures this season and the Cubs took advantage of Washington’s pen and got a hard-earned series split.

Thing is, I didn’t have to change the headline at all (apart from switching the teams, and the score), because originally it was going to be about the Cubs’ bullpen blowing a lead in the seventh inning. (FWIW, there were no photos from the end of the game available when I wrote this recap, which is why you have the one of Willson Contreras. I might change that later.)

Tell you what, let me start at the end and then go backwards. Candelario, who had hit his first major-league home run to give the Cubs a lead in the seventh, got hit by a pitch, hard, on the inside of his left knee with one out and the Cubs trailing 4-2. After being down on the ground for a bit, he stayed in the game.

Victor Caratini, making his second pinch-hit appearance in the series, hit into a force play, which was good — it put a better baserunner on base with Candelario banged up. But now there are two out. Caratini took second on defensive indifference.

Javier Baez followed with a single that sent Caratini to third. He probably could have scored, but why take the risk of making the last out at the plate?

La Stella singled in Caratini to make it 4-3 and Baez took third. Jay took care of both runners with a long double to right-center and the Cubs had the lead:

Wade Davis (16th save) had a 1-2-3 ninth to nail down this very big win.

Now, let’s go back and look at some of the other highlights of the game. First, here’s Candelario’s home run [VIDEO].

That ball went a long, long way:

Congratulations to Jeimer. He’d shown that power in the minor leagues, but had struggled mightily in major-league action, coming into this game with a lifetime big-league BA of .125 (5-for-40) with just two extra-base hits (both doubles). I hope this is the beginning of something big for him. He’ll likely be playing third base for a few more days while Kris Bryant recovers from the ankle sprain he suffered Wednesday night, which fortunately appears to be far less serious than it did when it first happened:

The Cubs started out this game well, with a two-out double by Anthony Rizzo and single by Willson Contreras giving them a 1-0 first-inning lead. Contreras was thrown out trying to take second.

The Nats, though, tied it almost immediately. Jon Lester was a bit wild in the bottom of the first, issuing two walks. But when he gave up the second walk, to Bryce Harper, Trea Turner (who had stolen second) tried to catch Contreras being nonchalant in throwing the ball back to Lester. That didn’t work out for Turner [VIDEO].

That was a terrific play by Contreras — and give credit, too, to Candelario for an excellent snap tag. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a double that tied the game, but the caught-stealing kept a second run off the board.

After that Lester settled down. He allowed just two more hits and another walk in six solid innings. He struck out seven. Personally, I would have let him throw another inning; his batting-order spot came up in the seventh with two out and nobody on base. Mark Zagunis batted for him, walked and stole second base, but was stranded. Lester, at 90 pitches through six, could easily have gone one more frame. Sometimes I think Joe Maddon doesn’t acknowledge the rhythm a starting pitcher has and disrupts that by going to the pen.

So it’s 1-1 with Carl Edwards Jr. throwing the bottom of the inning. It was not a good day for C.J. He walked Daniel Murphy and then Anthony Rendon put the Nats up 3-2 with a home run. Sometimes I think C.J. doesn’t trust his stuff and tries to get too cute with hitters. If he locates his fastball well, it’s really pretty much unhittable (career before this game: 30 hits allowed in 72 innings).

After Edwards walked Michael A. Taylor with one out, the Nats (not Dusty Baker, because he got tossed arguing a call in the previous inning, his first ejection as Washington manager) sent up Adam Lind to pinch-hit for pitcher Matt Grace.

Joe decided to get cute again and called on Brian Duensing. With righthanded hitters coming up after, Duensing was going to be a LOOGY. This was a mistake; Duensing has pretty severe reverse splits this year. RHB were hitting .198 against Duensing coming into this game and LHB .321. Naturally, Lind singled. Pedro Strop came in and hit Turner, loading the bases, and then Brian Goodwin batted for Ryan Raburn and singled in the fourth run.

All of that might have been avoided if Joe had just let Lester throw one more inning. With the bullpen being tremendously overworked in this series — all year, in fact — why not? Especially given this:

But then came the Cubs’ ninth and all is forgiven, because they won. Credit to Felix Pena, the last guy in the Cubs’ pen, for throwing a 1-2-3 eighth and keeping the game close for the Cubs’ big comeback.

And here’s the thing about this series, in which the Cubs got a hard-earned split: They were playing the entire series without Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. They played three-quarters of it without Addison Russell, and one and a half games without Kris Bryant. Those are four outstanding major-league players, and not that Cubs backups aren’t decent, but quite a bit of this series was played with two rookies with scant big-league experience (Candelario and Zagunis) in the starting lineup.

And with all that going on, they still managed two one-run wins over one of the best teams in baseball. They are 4-4 on the road trip so far, a not-unreasonable result.

Zobrist might be back soon:

It could be that Zobrist will play one game at Tennessee, tell management he’s ready, and meet the team in Cincinnati. Heyward might be out a bit longer:

At this point I’d think the target date for Heyward’s return might be Tuesday at Wrigley Field against the Rays. The Cubs miss his defense, and he’s actually having a pretty good season with the bat, too. He was hitting .273/.319/.409 over the 12 games before he got hurt (12-for-44) with three doubles and a home run.

I don’t think I have to tell you how much the Cubs miss Bryant and Russell. Really, they’re playing with a modified Triple-A team on the field.

And even with all that, the Cubs still could find themselves tied for first place at the end of tonight’s action, if the Reds can complete a three-game sweep of the Brewers. If that happens, the Cubs will want to be the team to stop Cincinnati’s winning streak, and they are well-positioned to do that. The Cubs are 5-1 against the Reds so far this year and swept them the last time the teams played, last month at Wrigley Field.

Friday’s series opener features Mike Montgomery for the Cubs and old friend Scott Feldman going for the Reds.

Keep the faith. I still think this team has a run toward the top in it, once everyone’s healthy and (perhaps) a starting pitcher is added by trade.