MILWAUKEE — At least the Chicago Cubs are making sure the few remaining optimists in Chicago can move on to dreaming that Justin Fields is still the quarterback of the future. A 4-3 loss in 10 innings Friday night to the Milwaukee Brewers coupled with the Miami Marlins win have all but put their postseason hopes to bed.
Friday’s loss was just another example of how things have fallen apart so quickly for this team. A group that’s been stout on defense, especially in the infield, has been making surprising mistakes this week. On this night, Jeimer Candelario failed to quickly pounce on a bunt that ended up putting two runners on with no outs and Nico Hoerner bobbled a ball he’d normally easily turn for two outs.
Those brief moments of sloppiness in the Brewers fifth led to three runs for the home team and ultimately made all the difference.
“We’re just giving away some runs,” manager David Ross said. “Gotta make that bunt. That’s pretty obvious there that (Brice) Turang’s bunting. Gotta pick it up and throw him out. Gave them some runs there.”
In the most important stretch of the season, the Cubs have lost four games in a row by a combined five runs. They’ve had their backs against the wall since fighting back from 10 games under .500 in early June and have been playing at a breakneck pace since July as they convinced Jed Hoyer to not sell at the deadline.
They’ve now fallen to 21-24 in one-run games. Part of their climb back to respectability included having many of those close games go their way. But in September, they failed to get the big hit or get the big out and have lost eight of 10 one-run games.
“We’ve been scratching and clawing to get our way back in for a while,” Kyle Hendricks said. “Every ball game has meant a lot going back for a couple months, so that could be playing a part in it. But at the end of the day, a little bounce here, a bounce there isn’t going our way. I think it chalks up to ‘that’s baseball’ sometimes. Guys are grinding. Everybody’s beat up, giving all they got and it’s just not coming out our way right now.”
But Hendricks wasn’t making excuses for the lack of wins of late. He was quick to point out that “everybody’s in the same spot” across the league. That sentiment seemed to be echoed throughout the clubhouse. Ian Happ didn’t want to accept that going all out for so long wore on them. And in Dansby Swanson’s mind, that’s what has made this group so special.
“That’s easy to let happen,” Swanson said of potentially letting close losses get to you. “But I know this group and the adversity that we’ve faced all year. It’s kind of in our DNA to just continue to fight and grind. That’s who we are and that’s what’s made this year so amazing in so many ways. This group being able to really come together in moments like that and grind and battle through things. If we would let things affect us, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now.”
One could point to everything that has not gone the Cubs’ way at times. Those issues get magnified when constantly playing tight games.
“One bounce here or there, one swing of the bat, one made pitch, whatever you want to call it, we could have a lot of different outcomes here,” Hendricks said. “It’s tough.”
The reality is the Cubs just haven’t played well enough down the stretch.
Their best starter in the first half, Marcus Stroman, spent the final three months of the season either injured or ineffective. Neither Cody Bellinger nor Swanson have come up with a big hit all month. Justin Steele’s two worst starts just so happened to come in the final stretch.
One could point to injuries sapping their bullpen, rotation and lineup depth, but in actuality, they’ve had quite a few things go their way. Atlanta, who swept the Cubs to start this week, has a lineup that’s as fearsome as it gets. One of the best in the game’s history. But the Cubs never faced their best pitchers, avoiding Spencer Strider, Max Fried or Charlie Morton. They just couldn’t pile on enough runs to make it matter.
With the Brewers already having clinched, this weekend in Milwaukee won’t feature any of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes or Freddy Peralta.
The Brewers had Caleb Boushley, who posted an ERA over 5.00 this season at Triple A, make his big-league debut Friday night late in a one-run game He gave up a game-tying home run, but worked out of multiple jams over 2 1/3 innings of work, struck out five and came away with a victory.
The Marlins lost starter Eury Perez and had Sandy Alcantara’s comeback thwarted when he felt forearm tightness after a rehab start. They then traveled to New York, sat through a rain delay and eventual rainout on Tuesday, played a doubleheader Wednesday and then played eight-plus innings on Thursday before more rain came and kept them at the park until the wee hours of the morning only to see the game suspended. The Marlins then arrived in Pittsburgh early Friday morning and still were able to deliver a come-from-behind victory over the Pirates, putting the Cubs on the brink of elimination.
The Cubs now sit 1 1/2 games behind the Marlins. They not only need to win out, they also need the Marlins to lose their next two games and also lose the suspended game they’re currently leading 2-1 with two outs in the top of the ninth against the Mets. Oh, and the Cincinnati Reds are now tied with the Cubs as well, meaning they’ll have to lose at least one this weekend too.
Cubs fans will remember the September of 2018. Joe Maddon’s team came to the ballpark expecting to play a game for nearly a month straight. Extreme weather meant multiple rainouts which led to a wild travel schedule. Still, they finished a respectable 16-12 that month. But Milwaukee went 19-7 in September and forced a Game 163 they’d eventually win.
This month was different. Miami has been strong (16-9 through Friday in September), but the Cubs have handed them their playoff spot by going 11-16 this month, only their second losing month of the season.
“You have something you’ve worked really hard for and (you’re) seeing it slipping a little bit,” Ross said. “Maybe a little bit tighter, but I don’t think anybody’s on fumes.”
Everyone has played the same amount of games. Nobody can complain about injuries or lack of rest. You either overcome the obstacles in your path or end the season with 17 other teams watching the postseason from your couch. For the third season in a row, it appears the Cubs will be doing the latter.
“Same as it’s been,” Ross said. “We’ve got to win every game. It’s been that way for a while now. I know the score.”
(Top photo of Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks handing the ball to manager David Ross: Benny Sieu / USA Today)