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Pirates 13, Cubs 7: What on Earth happened to Justin Steele?

And other probably unanswerable questions.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

If I had told you, before Wednesday’s game, that the Cubs would score seven runs off Pirates righthander Mitch Keller — who held them scoreless last month in Pittsburgh — you’d probably have been pretty happy.

Welp. That didn’t work out too well, did it. Justin Steele was charged with almost as many runs — six — and the Cubs bullpen simply couldn’t keep things close. The Pirates demolished the Cubs 13-7 in a game that was... well, I was going to say entertaining, but you were probably not entertained after the fifth inning.

The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the second. Cody Bellinger led off with a double, and one out later Seiya Suzuki singled him in [VIDEO].

Unfortunately, that was some not-good baserunning by Suzuki. When the throw to the plate was cut off, Suzuki was caught too far off first base and thrown out.

Meanwhile, Steele was breezing through the first three innings. He did allow two one-out hits in the first, but wound up striking out the side, and K’d six in all in those three innings.

And then... I just have no idea. Steele got pounded for six consecutive hits beginning the fourth inning. It didn’t appear to be an injury — his velocity stayed basically the same as it had in the first three. Was he tipping his pitches? Maybe, I can’t think of any other explanation for a pitcher looking that dominant for three innings and suddenly looking awful.

Four runs had crossed the plate before Steele was lifted from the game, still with no one out. That’s conceivably not a terrible deficit to overcome, three runs in the fourth inning. Jose Cuas entered and a bunt attempt was made, which failed. That’s still okay.

What happened next was not. Joshua Palacios smashed a three-run homer off Cuas. Now it’s 7-1. Yikes.

The Cubs went out 1-2-3 in the fourth, and Hayden Wesneski entered to throw the fifth. He struck out the first two batters he faced. That’s good! Then... another home run, this one by Connor Joe, made it 8-1. That’s bad!

The Cubs got to work trying to erase the seven-run deficit.

Christopher Morel, leading off the fifth, put a baseball on Waveland [VIDEO].

Here’s what happened to that baseball:

That ball was, as Dave noted, LONG gone [VIDEO}.

Yan Gomes followed with a single, but was forced at second by Miles Mastrobuoni. Mike Tauchman singled and Nico Hoerner was hit by a pitch to load the bases.

Ian Happ unloaded them [VIDEO].

Wrigley Field was loud after that. Not “Miguel Montero in the NLCS” loud, but pretty loud. It’s 8-6 and now it’s a game.

Cody Bellinger followed with a double, so the tying run is at the plate in the person of Dansby Swanson. But Swanson struck out and Suzuki grounded out and that was that.

Still, 8-6 after five? That seems a deficit that could be overcome.

The Cubs bullpen simply did not do its job after that. Mark Leiter Jr. served up a two-out, three-run homer to Joe, his second of the game, making it 11-6 in the sixth.

One run did come off that lead in the bottom of the sixth. With two out, Mastrobuoni doubled. That was followed by this RBI single from pinch-hitter Patrick Wisdom [VIDEO].

11-7 after six? Maybe...

Nope, maybe not. Brad Boxberger did manage to throw a 1-2-3 seventh, the first such inning since the third for Cubs pitching. Happ hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the inning, but was sstranded. A similar double by Mastrobuoni with one out in the bottom of the eighth also produced no runs.

Incidentally, after that Mastrobuoni double, Pete Crow-Armstrong came to the plate with a chance to produce a run and his first MLB hit. He struck out. While I do think PCA is going to be a very good player in this league, at the moment he seems a bit overmatched against MLB pitching.

Daniel Palencia threw a 1-2-3 eighth, but ran out of gas in the ninth and allowed two more runs, and the Cubs went down meekly, in order, in the bottom of the ninth and a bad, untimely loss was in the books.

You know, I’d almost have rather had a game like the Cubs lost to Keller in Pittsburgh in August. Keller just dominated that night and then you have to tip your cap to the other guy. But this? A stirring comeback ruined by bad bullpen work? If the pen holds the Pirates I think the Cubs come back to win the game, they did have several chances, but down by multiple runs it’s a much harder road.

The loss makes the Cubs’ road to the postseason harder, too, but they still control their fate. At this point I’m going to stop thinking the Cubs can win the N.L. Central. Their elimination number for the division is 4. Further, they’re probably out of contention for the top wild-card spot and any home games in that round. The Phillies’ elimination number for the Cubs for that position is 7.

So now it’s a matter of whether the Cubs can take the second wild-card spot (and play the Phillies) or the third (and play the Brewers). They’re 1½ games behind the D-backs for the second spot, and hold the third by half a game over the Marlins. Thus the Cubs still hold their own destiny. Continue to win and they’re a playoff team. In fact, starting Friday the Cubs should be rooting for the Brewers, as they visit Miami for a three-game set against the Marlins.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have a chance to move up a half game in those standings Thursday evening at Wrigley Field. Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs and Johan Oviedo will get the call for the Pirates. It’s the final regular season night game at Wrigley, with a game time of 6:40 p.m. CT. TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network.