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Nationals 9, Cubs 4: Bullpen implosion

That was... ugly.

Obligatory photo of dejected pitcher and runner rounding the bases after a home run
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

For just a fraction over six innings Sunday, it looked like the Cubs were headed for a series win, and I could have written a festive recap highlighting yet another huge day for Willson Contreras.

Instead, the bullpen put together one of its worst combined outings of the year, and Matt Wieters’ grand slam in the eighth inning helped send the Nationals to a 9-4 win over the Cubs, ending the homestand on a sour note.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Maybe that’ll make us all feel better.

Three Cubs singles in the second inning gave the team a 1-0 lead; the third hit was an RBI single by Javier Baez.

The Nats tied the game 1-1 when Kyle Schwarber couldn’t handle a fly ball by Brian Goodwin with a runner on third base. It was originally scored a hit, then changed to a sacrifice fly and an error, though if Kyle had caught the ball, the runner likely would not have scored.

Then it was Willson’s turn leading off the bottom of the fourth:

That ball was crushed!

Jon Lester was sailing along after that third-inning run. He allowed just one baserunner through the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, and in the sixth, Willson did it again!

And Schwarber followed with an oppo blast of his own [VIDEO].

It’s 4-1 now. Nine outs to go for a series win. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out. Lester gave up sharply-hit doubles to the first two batters in the seventh, then got a pair of outs on fly balls that were also hard-hit. There was an error on a really bad decision by Kris Bryant to throw to second to try to get Anthony Rendon, who hit the second double; Rendon wound up at third. But pinch-hitter Adrian Sanchez singled in Rendon to make it 4-3 and that was it for Lester, who probably should have been lifted earlier.

Mike Montgomery retired Goodwin to end the inning.

It’s 4-3 now. Six outs to go for a series win. What could...

Oh, man, do you really want me to go through the carnage? Suffice to say that after Montgomery was lifted with one out and a runner on first (a little dribbly single by Bryce Harper), Carl Edwards Jr. entered and had what was probably the worst appearance of his career. Ryan Zimmerman hit a double just out of reach of Jon Jay in deep center field, with Harper stopping at third. Daniel Murphy was intentionally passed and then CJ’s first pitch to Rendon hit him, forcing in the tying run.

Now, here’s where I have to differ with Joe Maddon’s choices. Clearly, with Wade Davis probably unavailable after a 30-pitch outing Saturday, he was saving Hector Rondon for a save situation in the ninth. But here you are, with one out in the eighth and the game’s on the line. Hector wasn’t warming up but I think he should have been. At this point CJ’s confidence is likely shot and he hung a breaking pitch to Matt Wieters that wound up in the shrubbery in center field for a grand slam.

If you were watching the game you no doubt felt the festive atmosphere that was in the park when Contreras and Schwarber went back-to-back. I can tell you it was just as loud and happy as you imagine.

When Wieters’ ball left the yard a dead silence came over Wrigley Field, almost funereal-feeling.

CJ got the last two outs, but at that point it didn’t matter.

On July 18, CJ’s ERA was 2.11. Since then in eight appearances covering 6⅓ innings, he’s allowed five hits and nine walks (2.211 WHIP) and 11 earned runs (15.63 ERA). The nicest thing I can say about those numbers is... they aren’t good. His season ERA is now 3.83.

I’m going to propose something that you might not agree with, but I think might be necessary: Send CJ to Iowa for the rest of August, let him get his confidence back and work on his command against Triple-A hitters. Bring Justin Grimm back; last time Grimm was recalled after a minor-league stint he was lights-out for a few weeks. Or bring Felix Pena back. Or something. Because at this point the Cubs really can’t use CJ in high-leverage situations.

And don’t get me wrong: I like CJ. Great arm, great attitude, works hard. But I think he needs a break.

Koji Uehara served up another homer, to Goodwin in the ninth, to complete the scoring.

Let’s switch back to something fun by talking about Contreras. He had an incredible six-game homestand: 10-for-22 (.455/.478/1.182, OPS 1.660) with a double, five home runs and 13 RBI. I expect to hear, sometime early Monday afternoon, that he’s been named National League Player of the Week. His week was absolutely amazing and fans responded to it by giving him multiple ovations at the ballpark. He’ll need to keep doing this, because much of the rest of the offense looked impotent Sunday afternoon. Besides the Contreras and Schwarber homers, the only Cub who had a good day at the plate was Jason Heyward, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles, one to the opposite field. The rest of the team went 4-for-23.

Fortunately for the Cubs, Steven Souza Jr. of the Rays hit a walkoff homer against the Brewers, salvaging the final game of that series for Tampa Bay, and so the Cubs maintain a half-game lead over the Brewers, who head to Minnesota to begin a four-game, home-and-home set with the Twins Monday (same type of series the Cubs and White Sox played, two in Minneapolis, then two in Milwaukee).

The Nats and D-backs are good teams. The Cubs fought hard, but in the end lost four of six, and that’s not going to be good enough in the postseason, presuming the Cubs can hang on and win the N.L. Central.

Final note: The Cubs didn’t take batting practice Sunday, but did do some infield drills. I saw Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist taking grounders at shortstop. Could this mean the injury to Addison Russell is more serious than we’ve been led to believe, and the Cubs want Happ and Zobrist ready to back up shortstop if needed?

The Cubs head to San Francisco and Arizona to begin a key six-game road trip. It’s the last time this year the Cubs will play outside the Eastern or Central time zone. Joe Maddon has termed this the “Easy Rider” road trip; here are some photos of the players before they boarded buses to O’Hare:

They’ll open the trip Monday night in San Francisco, presumably wearing baseball uniforms and not that garb. Jake Arrieta will go for the Cubs and Matt Moore for the Giants.