CINCINNATI — For the second night in a row, the Chicago Cubs squandered a one-run lead in Cincinnati, watching the Reds bats wake up late and walk them off in the ninth.
“We pitched well both games, giving up three and two and coming away with losses,” manager David Ross said. “It’s tough.”
Javier Assad was dominant in Saturday night’s 2-1 loss, tossing eight shutout innings and striking out seven while walking just one. Over his last five starts, Assad has a 1.62 ERA and is averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.
“He was awesome,” Dansby Swanson said. “He’s so much fun to play behind with his pitch arsenal. You can see how much it means to him, the compete factor is really high. He keeps us engaged, and he was pretty special tonight. I feel like he was really in control and knew what he wanted to do.”
Assad mixed his pitches well, leaning primarily on his cutter and sinker, getting five whiffs on the cutter and 12 called strikes on the sinker. He was able to work around seven hits with the help of brilliant defense behind him and a pair of pickoffs getting him out of jams.
“We knew that these guys run a lot,” Assad said through interpreter Fredy Quevedo. “So that’s something we definitely kept in mind. Just shorten up that distance running and slow them down a bit.”
Nico Hoerner was brilliant defensively, making multiple strong plays, including running down a popup in shallow right field and then immediately turning and throwing off-balance to Swanson at second base to double off a runner who’d drifted too far off the bag.
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The duo nearly saved the game for the Cubs, as well. With one out, the bases loaded and the Reds having already scored the tying run, Hunter Renfroe shot a grounder to the right of Swanson. Swanson made a diving stop, got up, turned and fired the ball to Hoerner for one out, and Hoerner quickly made the transfer and fired to Jeimer Candelario, who scooped the throw on one hop. Renfroe barely beat the throw on a play that never should have been close, and the game ended.
“It’s kind of one of those situations where you got the groundball you wanted, just not right at somebody,” Swanson said. “He was obviously able to beat it out. Nico did an unbelievable job of getting rid of it and giving us a chance. It just didn’t work out for us.”
Some may question whether Ross should have pulled Assad in favor of Mark Leiter Jr., who failed to record an out and exited with the lead lost and the bases loaded in favor of Jose Cuas. But Assad had already thrown a career-high 98 pitches and was about to face a lefty-heavy lineup for the fourth time.
“I was questioning the eighth,” Ross said, “with the pitch count and it’s hot today. He’s a guy who hasn’t really been stretched out consistently. We knew we needed a big performance from him today. But him going back out fourth time through the lineup at the top, he did his job. That was a phenomenal performance. We needed to score more runs and we needed to (extend the lead). We just weren’t able to.”
Adbert Alzolay, who blew the save Friday night, had worked three of the last four days and even warmed up in Friday’s day game before pitching in the second game of the doubleheader. He was down. Julian Merryweather also had thrown three of four and was down. Keegan Thompson threw two innings Friday and doesn’t work back-to-back games. Hayden Wesneski and Drew Smyly threw 50-plus pitches Friday and weren’t available.
Daniel Palencia hasn’t earned that moment just yet, and Shane Greene is up to eat innings in a blowout. Like Ross said, Assad had done his job. Leiter is the guy Ross calls upon when there are lefties coming up, and he’s executed for much of the season. But he just couldn’t do so Saturday.
“Everybody in the bullpen has been cashed,” Ross said. “Leiter there, that’s four out of five days for him. He’s running on fumes. A little bit short right there with the doubleheader.”
This loss, like Friday night, falls on the offense. The Cubs totaled three runs over the last two games against the Reds, a team that entered the series with a 4.70 ERA, seventh worst in the game. They failed to take advantage of Lyon Richardson’s command issues early in Friday night’s loss and on Saturday couldn’t jump on Andrew Abbott, who has a 6.67 ERA in his last six starts, averaging under five innings a start during that stretch.
“You get eight shutout innings from your starter, you like your chances to win that game,” Hoerner said. “Obviously, we weren’t able to close out the last two. But I think in here that’s as much, if not more, on the offense than anything. You can win with one run, but it’s really, really challenging. Nothing to panic about, but obviously a lot of guys in here that feel like they could’ve changed the outcome of today’s game.”
Since Aug. 14, entering play Saturday, Yan Gomes (70 wRC+), Miguel Amaya (58), Candelario (47), Swanson (37), Mike Tauchman (30) and Christopher Morel (18) have all been in deep slumps. Candelario homered Saturday, but it wasn’t enough to get the team the win.
“We’d swung the bat really well coming into this series,” Ross said. “Didn’t pan out last night or today. Big home run, and we weren’t able to make it stick.”
The Cubs played tremendous defense and pitched brilliantly. The starters have delivered a 2.21 ERA over the last 11 games. An overtaxed bullpen couldn’t get the job done the last two nights and could use a few blowout victories that lead to multiple days off. After scoring 55 runs in nine games, the Cubs have scored just 15 in their last six. This is a small slump for an offense that has been among the best in baseball. Veteran players know that tough offensive stretches happen. How they respond and what they do to limit how long those tough times last is key.
This team believes it’s not playing poorly. It just hasn’t come up with the big hit the last two nights. Ultimately, the Cubs have proved that these types of bad moments won’t sink them. They’ve been counted out after so many bad losses and tough stretches and found a way to fight back. Two late-game losses aren’t going to shake this group.
“Just keep going,” Swanson said. “That’s just the mindset of this group. Keep going each and every day and prepare. Hitting in this game can be challenging. As a group, we have so much confidence in one another and know that good things are bound to happen. We just gotta keep showing up. That’s what this game will do, it’ll test you. But we have a lot of guys in this room that we believe in and know will step up when the moment comes.”
(Photo of Cody Bellinger after striking out Saturday: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)