ATLANTA — How does this even happen?
I’ve seen a lot of Cubs baseball, good and bad. This might be the worst loss in franchise history, and that’s saying something. The Cubs lost 7-6 to the Braves after taking a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth.
The Braves had mounted a comeback, but the Cubs were one out, one play away from going to the ninth inning with the lead.
And then Seiya Suzuki dropped the routiniest of routine fly balls, calling off Cody Bellinger in the process. And yes, David Ross contributed to this by pulling Pete Crow-Armstrong for pinch-hitter Patrick Wisdom in the eighth. Wisdom struck out. PCA likely takes charge in center field, calls off Suzuki, and catches that ball. Dear manager: If you’re going to make this change for defensive purposes IN THE FOURTH INNING, you had better damn well keep it that way.
The only thing missing was Ron Santo crying, “Oh, no” on the radio broadcast.
All right, I’ll get back to this catastrophe eventually, but let’s start at the beginning.
The Cubs put two on the board against Bryce Elder in the second inning. Bellinger and Suzuki singled and Dansby Swanson plated Bellinger on a ground ball force play (no video available). After Christopher Morel struck out, Yan Gomes singled in a run with this dribbler [VIDEO].
Two more Cubs runs crossed the plate in the third. Nico Hoerner led off and stole second. Ian Happ flied to left, but Bellinger then walked.
That was not a good defensive play by Ronald Acuña Jr. and Willie Harris was beginning to think about waving Suzuki home, but thought better of it and held him at third. Despite a following walk to Swanson, the Cubs could not score again in that inning.
They did score one more in the fourth. Miles Mastrobuoni led off with a single and Mike Tauchman walked. Tauchman was replaced by PCA as a pinch-runner. I thought this was a bit early for that move.
Two outs later, Bellinger singled in Mastrobuoni [VIDEO].
Bellinger and PCA attempted a double steal, but PCA was caught in a rundown [VIDEO].
I’m not understanding why that happened. The team’s hottest hitter, Suzuki, is at the plate. He’s already had two hits in this game. Why take the bat out of his hands with runners on?
The Cubs made it 6-0 in the sixth. Mastrobuoni led off with a single, his third hit of the game. PCA sacrificed Mastrobuoni to second and Nico Hoerner singled him to third.
The Cubs still had two runners on with one out here, but Bellinger hit into an inning-ending double play. If you’re counting, beyond the six runs scored in six innings, the Cubs left seven others on base in that time frame. That’s just... not good.
While all this was going on, Justin Steele was putting together a solid outing, for five innings at least. At one point he struck out six consecutive Braves hitters. Here are the six K’s [VIDEO].
But Steele ran out of gas and fell apart in the bottom of the sixth, allowing four hits, including a home run by Kevin Pillar. That was the Braves’ 300th home run of the season. (Comparison: The Cubs have 189, which is one below the MLB average of 190 and ranks 14th.)
Steele was lifted for Jose Cuas, who gave up an RBI double that made the score 6-3. But then Cuas got out of the inning. Nine outs to go.
The Cubs offense could not score in the seventh, but the Braves made it 6-5 on a two-run homer by Ronald Acuña Jr. off Javier Assad, who was not nearly as sharp as he was last weekend against the Rockies. (Hint: The Braves are a way, way, way better team than the Rockies.)
And then the Cubs couldn’t score in the eighth. Again, a note about Wisdom batting for PCA — the result was likely the same as if PCA had batted (a strikeout), and that downgraded the Cubs defense. Yes, Bellinger, who moved to center from first base, is a good outfielder. PCA is better.
Drew Smyly entered to throw the eighth. He was wild, issuing two walks and throwing two wild pitches. Still, he should have been out of the inning on the fly ball to Suzuki, and as a writer reporting the facts of this game, I feel I must put the video here. Feel free to not watch this [VIDEO].
Here’s what Suzuki said after the game:
On missed catch that would've ended 8th but scored 2 decisive runs on E9 in loss, Suzuki said via interpreter lights contributed to misplay but he didn't want to use that as excuse: “I honestly thought it went into my glove so it was that split second where it blurred my vision.”— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) September 27, 2023
Welp. There it is. Obviously, this happened at the worst possible time. The Cubs got the tying run on base in the ninth on a single by Bellinger, and then Suzuki came to the plate. Redemption time, perhaps? Nope, he struck out. Then Swanson, the hometown guy, came to bat. Great storyline, right? Nope, he struck out to end the game.
Remember how I’ve said over the last few weeks that a Cubs loss is not the end of the world? This one sort of feels like the end of the world. The loss allowed the Brewers, who lost to the Cardinals, to clinch the N.L. Central title, so that’s officially off the table.
The Cubs still do hold the third wild card spot, by the slimmest of possible margins, half a game over the Marlins, who were postponed Tuesday against the Mets in New York. Those teams will play a doubleheader Wednesday. The Reds won, but the Cubs still lead them by 1½ games and Cincinnati has only four games remaining, while the Cubs have five.
Before the game, the Braves played a tribute video to Dansby Swanson:
The Braves’ tribute video for Dansby Swanson pic.twitter.com/pVYhQJR2HT— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) September 26, 2023
So that was nice.
The game? “Flush it, move on,” is what Kyle Hendricks said after a bad loss to the Braves at Wrigley Field last month. What else can the Cubs do? Five games remain, and the Cubs still can control their own fate.
Circling back to the “Brant Brown Game,” which I referenced above. it felt very much the same after that devastating defeat — that the Cubs had blown their chance at the then-single N.L. wild card. But it was the Mets, who had led the wild card race by a game over the Cubs and four over the Giants with five remaining, who were done.
The Cubs, after the bad loss in Milwaukee, were tied with the Mets and one game ahead of the Giants with four to go. The Mets went 0-4 while the Cubs went 2-2 and Giants 3-1 to force the tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field, which the Cubs won. Going forward, of course, there are no more tiebreaker games, and with the Cubs not holding the tiebreaker over either of the teams behind them (with the Giants and Padres now eliminated), they will have to keep winning to stay in.
The Cubs made the playoffs after the Brant Brown game. I think they can still do that this year. Five games to go.
The second of this three-game series will take place at Truist Park Wednesday evening. Jameson Taillon will start for the Cubs and Darius Vines gets the call for Atlanta. Game time is again 6:20 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network.