Let’s put it this way.
When your starting pitcher strikes out seven in five innings and gets touched only for a pair of solo homers, and when your bullpen puts together four shutout innings with just two baserunners allowed and one of those is on an intentional walk, you really should win the game.
Unfortunately, the Cubs offense is just buried right now. They have scored just 15 runs in their last seven games and somehow managed to win four of those, largely on absolutely outstanding pitching, as they’ve allowed just 14 runs in those seven contests.
Sunday’s 2-1 Cubs loss to the Reds was a game that could have been won on a number of different occasions, so let’s talk about them, and how they got behind in the first place.
It didn’t take long. Jose Quintana’s first pitch of the game was launched into the center-field juniper bushes by Scott Schebler. Okay, so it’s 1-0. Nine innings left! Q got himself in trouble, though, loading the bases on a hit and a couple of walks in the first, before recording a foul popup to end the inning. Unfortunately, at that point he’d thrown 28 pitches, and a 28-pitch first inning is almost always going to end in an early exit from the game for your starting pitcher.
Let me interrupt here for an observation: Cubs pitchers seem to nibble when they get ahead in the count. They seem way too often to go from 0-2 to 3-2. This does not seem optimal; Cubs hitters, much more aggressive, appear to allow opposing starters to go deeper into games. I wish Cubs pitchers had more confidence in their stuff, or a better game plan, to throw more strikes.
Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch to lead off the bottom of the first, but was immediately erased on a double play and the Cubs had no further baserunners until the fourth, when Rizzo singled and two outs later, Daniel Murphy walked.
Then Victor Caratini smashed a ball down the first-base line that appeared to be an RBI single, but the ball hit umpire Hunter Wendelstedt:
With runners on corners and 2 out, Caratini rips a ball over 1B and it hits umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. Wendlelstedt calls it a foul ball. It's not reviewable because it was called a foul ball in the infield. That's bad. Then, VC pops out to end inning. #Cubs— Matt Martell (@mmartell728) September 16, 2018
And there you have it. Was the ball fair? We’ll never know, because you can’t review those.
Quintana gave up a second solo homer to Phillip Ervin in the fifth, then a couple of throwing errors by Addison Russell gave the Reds another scoring opportunity. But Q got out of it with a ground ball tag play at third and a strikeout, and then the Cubs broke through and got on the board in the fifth.
With one out, Russell walked and Willson Contreras batted for Quintana. Contreras hit a pitch a long, long way [VIDEO].
You can see Contreras stand at the plate briefly. He thought he had homered. So did most people in the ballpark. The ball hit high off the wall, and Russell had hesitated because Billy Hamilton is fast and might have caught up with the ball. That’s why Russell wound up on third instead of scoring. And about Willson not running out of the box:
Maddon on Willson not getting out of the box: Horrible. I didn't like that at all. And that will be addressed. The whole team didn't like that.— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) September 16, 2018
Albert Almora Jr. scored him with a sac fly to make it 2-1, and Contreras took third. But now there are two out. Rizzo walked, but Ian Happ grounded out to end the inning.
Then the Cubs bullpen took over. Jaime Garcia, who was very good Friday evening, was good again. This is what we used to call “junkball” pitching. Garcia’s fastball was in Kyle Hendricks’ range, 88 miles per hour, but he located well and managed to get swings and misses for a pair of strikeouts. Don’t ask me how. He allowed a bunt single in the seventh, and one out later an intentional pass put two runners on base, but a line drive to Rizzo ended that inning.
Then the Cubs had another good chance to score. With two out in the seventh, Kris Bryant batted for Garcia. It was just the seventh pinch-hit at-bat of Bryant’s career and he came through with just his second career pinch hit, a single. Almora also singled, and that brought up Rizzo. The Reds countered with lefty Amir Garrett, who threw a wild pitch that moved the runners up. Rizzo looked at one pitch that was called a strike that looked like it was out of the zone, but the @CubsUmp Twitter account was silent on that one.
Garrett threw a 1-2 slider, Rizzo swung and missed, and the inning was over. In frustration, Rizzo slammed his helmet to the ground, far away from the plate umpire, fortunately. You can understand that level of frustration, I’m sure.
Dillon Maples entered to throw the eighth. Jim Hickey must have asked him to rely mostly on his slider, because again Maples threw mostly offspeed stuff to Reds hitters, who went down 1-2-3. Of the 13 pitches Maples threw, just one was a fastball (and that came in at 96). The rest were curveballs and sliders. This just might work, and make Maples a useful bullpen piece the rest of this month.
With two out in the bottom of the eighth, Murphy sliced a ball down the left-field line for a hit [VIDEO]. Oh, man, Daniel. What are you thinking?
Seriously, Daniel Murphy, you are not a fast baserunner. Don’t take chances like that! The ball took a convenient bounce right off the wall right to Ervin, and Murphy was out by 15 feet. Sure, I get it, you want to get in scoring position, but that was just not good.
Carl Edwards Jr., who had not pitched since Thursday, entered to throw the ninth. This was a good outing for CJ: eight pitches, seven strikes, two lineouts and a strikeout. More like this, please.
The three due hitters in the ninth for the Cubs were Victor Caratini, David Bote and Russell against Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. Caratini hit Iglesias’ second pitch hard — too hard, as it turned out. The ball looked at first as if it might drop in, but instead it went right to Hamilton for the first out. Bote ran the count to 3-1, then grounded to second.
That brought out Javier Baez to bat for Russell, to a standing ovation and chants of “Javy! Javy!” Baez, too, got ahead of Iglesias, then got overanxious and bounced a little comebacker on a slider that Iglesias handled and retired him.
The great news is that the pitching has been excellent. The bad news is, these guys have to start hitting, and soon.
Just as that ninth-inning drama was going on at Wrigley, many of us were following the Brewers/Pirates game on our phones. The Pirates had fashioned a 3-0 lead with their closer Felipe Vazquez on for the ninth... and he served up back-to-back homers to Jesus Aguilar and Domingo Santana. Yikes! But Vazquez calmly retired the next three Brewers, and so the Cubs maintained their 2½-game lead, with one more number knocked off the Brewers’ elimination number, now down to 11.
Keep pitching this way and wins will come. I’m sure of it. Three more games and the Cubs’ 30-day odyssey will be over. It continues Monday evening at Chase Field in Phoenix, where there will certainly be a large contingent of Cubs fans, but one Cub will stay in Chicago:
Schwarber will stay back while the team heads to Arizona. Avoids a couple lefties and a plane ride to keep his back good.— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) September 16, 2018
Jason Heyward, who was activated Sunday but did not play, could return to the lineup.
Kyle Hendricks goes for the Cubs against Arizona’s Patrick Corbin Monday. Game time is 8:40 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via WGN.