The Chicago Cubs remain in first place Thursday morning by one game.
Wednesday evening at Wrigley Field, however, they were not the team on the field looking like a playoff contender.
That look went to the Milwaukee Brewers, who thoroughly dominated the Cubs in a 5-1 victory that concluded the regular-season series between the two teams. It was the Cubs’ sixth loss in their last nine games.
It started out poorly. Curtis Granderson yanked a ball toward the left-field bleachers. It appeared that it might be a home run, but second-base umpire Gary Cederstrom clearly signaled “in play.” Granderson wound up on third base, and the play went to review [VIDEO].
The Wrigley Field bleacher basket has been in place for more than 48 years. Until this year I’d never seen a ball hit one of the upright metal supports that holds it in place. Now I’ve seen that happen twice in a matter of a few weeks. The ball hit the top of the basket, then hit a support, then dropped to the field. Since Granderson had made it to third, he was placed there.
One out later, Lorenzo Cain singled him in. Cain’s ball got past Albert Almora Jr. for a two-base error. Fortunately, Kyle Hendricks retired the next two hitters and it remained 1-0.
Chase Anderson was retiring Cubs, too. The Cubs were hitting the ball hard off Anderson, but right at Brewers fielders. Six of the first nine outs were fly balls or sharp line drives hit at Milwaukee outfeilders. The Cubs had their chances in the first three innings, with a pair of hits and three walks, but Javier Baez got himself thrown out trying to steal after drawing an unintentional walk to lead off the second. That was a rare event, too, the walk:
Javier Báez: 3rd straight game with an unintentional walk.— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 13, 2018
He last did that August 25-27, 2017 (and he had an intentional walk the game after that) #Cubs
Almost as rare was the Cubs’ first hit, a sharp single by Hendricks in that second inning:
Four.— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 13, 2018
July 28 (Quintana)
August 24 (Mills)
August 31 (Quintana)
(Incidentally, that’s not the Cubs manager asking. @JosephMaddon is Joe’s son.)
Hendricks’ hit might have tied the game had Baez not been thrown out. But it didn’t. The Brewers made it 2-0 with three singles off Hendricks in the third. Kris Bryant singled with one out in the third, but the next five Cubs went down in order.
That’s when both managers started playing this game like a postseason contest. Craig Counsell pulled Anderson after four innings and just 71 pitches. Jacob Barnes entered to throw the fifth, and Joe Maddon lifted Hendricks (after 77 pitches) for pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella.
It was the right thing to do. The Cubs needed offense, and TLS gave them some with his 23rd pinch hit of the season, a single. When Brewers shortstop Hernan Perez threw the ball away, La Stella wound up on second. He advanced to third on an infield out, and one out later Bryant drove him in [VIDEO].
That ball was about two feet from being a two-run homer. It hit off the front of the basket and dropped for an RBI double. But Bryant was stranded, so the score remained 2-1 Brewers.
Cubs relievers Randy Rosario, Jesse Chavez, Carl Edwards Jr. and Steve Cishek were almost constantly in trouble from the sixth through the eighth innings. The Brewers had runners in scoring position in all three innings, but could not score. That was in part thanks to good defensive plays like this one by Almora [VIDEO].
One play after that, Baez did something I wish he hadn’t. Perez hit a little dribbler about 30 feet in front of the plate. Javy had no chance of throwing him out, yet he threw anyway. The truth is, many times Javy’s instincts are right. That time... not so much. Baez threw the ball in the general direction of the tarp in right field, and Perez wound up on third. Fortunately, Rosario struck out Eric Thames to end the inning.
And the Cubs could not score. They managed a single off Corey Knebel in the seventh with two out, and another single off Josh Hader with two out in the eighth. Progress, off Hader, right? He struck out the side — again — but at least they got a hit off him, by Ben Zobrist.
So the game went 2-1 Brewers into the ninth. Pedro Strop had been warming up and I thought Joe might bring him even with the Cubs down, but he left Cishek out there. Cishek retired the first hitter in the inning, but then Granderson did what he just missed doing in the first inning, and hit a home run into the left-center field seats.
Via Brewers broadcast: The last time Curtis Granderson (Chicago native) homered at Wrigley was in 2006 against MARK PRIOR!!!!— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) September 13, 2018
That one, and Wednesday night’s, are Granderson’s only home runs at Wrigley in 18 career games. I remember that 2006 game well, too. The Tigers hit four home runs off Mark Prior June 18, 2006, on their way to a World Series berth. It was Prior’s first game back after several injuries. He would throw only eight more big-league games.
But I digress, and reasonably so, because this game completely fell apart after Granderson’s home run. Brandon Kintzler was summoned, why I do not know, because he continued to be as bad as he’s been since being acquired by the Cubs. He hit the first batter he faced, gave up a sharp single, and a walk loaded the bases.
Kintzler has been just awful since joining the Cubs: 19 appearances, 8.36 ERA, 2.214 WHIP, 5.1 walks per nine innings, three home runs in 14 innings, -0.7 bWAR. I mean... Dillon Maples could have done that. (Or been better, probably.)
That brought in Brian Duensing. You know, at 3-1 this game might still have been within reach, but Duensing served up a single to Mike Moustakas, scoring a pair and sending a mass exodus of folks out of Wrigley Field.
Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress entered anyway for the last of the ninth, despite the game no longer being in a save situation. Cubs hitters ended the game the way they began it, by hitting line drives right at Brewers fielders, one at Moustakas, the other at Orlando Arcia to end it.
Can’t sugarcoat this. The Cubs are not playing well. The Brewers are. It will take better play from our favorite team to hold on to first place in the N.L. Central — and I don’t believe you, or the Cubs, want to wind up in the wild-card game.
The Cubs finish the 2018 regular season schedule against the Brewers 11-8, but that’s a bit misleading. Milwaukee won seven of the final 11 against the Cubs this year after the Cubs began the year 7-1 against them. The Brewers are a hot team; they have a 16-6 record since August 18, while the Cubs are just 13-10 in that span. Hendricks summed it up best:
#Cubs Hendricks: "That's a really good team over there and they've been playing us close. They're definitely coming for us, we can feel it. That's why we have to focus on what we do and play our brand of baseball."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 13, 2018
After several days of back-and-forth, the Cubs’ rainout makeup game against the Nationals in Washington is on for 3:05 p.m. CT Thursday afternoon, weather permitting, with Mike Montgomery scheduled to start against the Nats’ Joe Ross. Today’s game preview will post at 1 p.m. CT.
This schedule has been brutal on the Cubs:
#Cubs Maddon: "I don't want it to sound like an excuse but we do need the rest. [The players] need a break and it's not happening for another week and we have to figure it out somehow"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 13, 2018
Joe’s right. There’s no systematic way to research this, but I can’t ever recall the Cubs — or any team — forced to play 30 consecutive days, and now in an eight-day period they will fly from Washington to Chicago to Washington to Chicago to Phoenix. It doesn’t matter how young or how good physical shape you are in, that’s a tiring schedule and in my view, doesn’t allow the Chicago Cubs to take the field every day in top physical condition ready to play baseball at a high level.
Joe’s also right that it’s not an excuse. They have to figure out how to get past that, though, and if anyone can figure out how to do that, Joe Maddon is the guy. Here’s hoping he can do it. A win Thursday afternoon would put this team in much better spirits, not to mention adding half a game to the division lead.
Fasten your seat belts. The last two and a half weeks of this season appear to be setting up as a thrill ride.