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Pirates 4, Cubs 3: Bullpen failure causes third straight loss

That one hurt.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As is often the case when the Cubs suffer a tough, late-inning loss, I have a question.

Why was Carl Edwards Jr. in the game in the eighth inning?

CJ came on in the seventh after Kyle Hendricks allowed a two-out single and was lifted after 101 pitches. He struck out Jordy Mercer to end that inning. That’s good!

But then CJ’s enemy, the walk, raised its ugly head in the eighth. He walked John Jaso on four pitches. Two singles, a wild pitch, an intentional walk and another single produced two Pirates runs and the Cubs lost a game they probably should have won, 4-3. (And that inning could have been worse, except the Pirates ran themselves into two outs on the basepaths.)

What would I have done? I think Pedro Strop should have started the eighth inning. Strop was warming up while CJ was melting down and hadn’t thrown since last Friday.

This wasn’t the only reason the Cubs lost this game. Failure to bring home baserunners in the early innings was also a cause. The Cubs did take a 1-0 lead in the first inning on a Ben Zobrist sacrifice fly, but Jordan Luplow smacked a two-run homer off Hendricks in the second inning.

After that, though, Hendricks allowed just three more hits, all singles, and his numbers since his return from the disabled list are solid:

But Hendricks’ solid pitching was wasted while the Cubs were leaving runners on base. They left two men on in the second inning, and even after a two-run single by Ian Happ gave the Cubs the lead back at 3-2 in the third, they left two more men on in that frame.

Fourth inning? Same thing. A two-out double by Kris Bryant and a walk to Zobrist put two men on for Happ, but he hit a foul popup to end the inning. Scoring more runs in those innings could have helped put this game out of reach.

And then? Nothing. The final 16 Cubs went down in order, including that popup by Happ. By the time they got to the ninth inning trailing and having to face Pirates closer Felipe Rivero, this somewhat-makeshift lineup looked like it was finishing up a spring-training split-squad game. And the bench wouldn’t have been much help against Rivero, as most of the guys who didn’t start this game were lefthanded hitters, such as Jason Heyward. Heyward was double-switched into the game when Hendricks departed, and he struck out against Rivero, who threw only 11 pitches to notch the save. (Take note, Cubs relievers.)

Bad news first: Jake Arrieta is going to miss at least one start.

Good thing the Cubs do have Mike Montgomery around; his last few starts have ranged from good to excellent. I’m sure the Cubs would have liked to have Jake around to face the Brewers over the weekend, but Montgomery is a capable replacement. And with the Cubs having next Monday off, they can keep Montgomery in the rotation for one more turn if they so desire, which would give everyone an extra day of rest next week.

Good news: The Brewers lost to the Reds for the second straight night and so the Cubs maintain their 3½-game lead over Milwaukee. The Cardinals defeated the Padres again, so they creep to within four games of first place.

More good news:

So perhaps Willson Contreras can return to the lineup by this weekend. The original diagnosis of Contreras’ hamstring injury was that he’d be out about four to six weeks. This weekend is four and a half weeks, so that’s within the time frame. The Cubs could use both his offense and defense back in the lineup, even if he has to take things a bit slow coming back. (“Slow” isn’t usually in Willson’s game plan, though.)

So things could be worse. The Cubs maintained their division lead and ticked one more day off the calendar and are still on pace for 90 or 91 wins, which should be enough to win the N.L. Central. On the other hand: Sheesh, the Cubs shouldn’t lose games like this.

They’ll try to break their three-game losing streak Wednesday evening with Jose Quintana facing Gerrit Cole.