Three Cubs takeaways: Bunting in the ninth, tired relievers and Seiya Suzuki

NEW YORK — After six straight series wins, the Chicago Cubs dropped two of three to a New York Mets team that has little to compete for. Wednesday’s 4-3 loss came at the end of 16 games in 16 days, and the Cubs finished the stretch going a strong 11-5.

Here are three takeaways from their loss in Queens.

After Seiya Suzuki led off the ninth with a homer to cut the deficit to one, the next two batters reached with Miguel Amaya due up. Instead of having Amaya bat, manager David Ross sent Nick Madrigal to the plate. Madrigal bunted the runners to second and third with Christopher Morel on deck.

Morel, who had homered on the first pitch of the game, swung through the first two pitches, took a ball, fouled off the fourth pitch and then looked at a fastball down the middle to end the at-bat. Nico Hoerner followed with a four-pitch walk, and Ian Happ ended the game with a six-pitch, swinging strikeout.

After the loss, Ross explained his decision to have Madrigal bunt with Morel, who entered the game with a 33 percent strikeout rate, behind him.

“You gotta trust your players,” Ross said. “I’m not going to pinch hit for (Morel). He could hit one in the seats just like earlier in the game. Guy’s a really valuable player, and Nick puts the ball on the ground a lot. If he hits into a double play, you might be asking me why I didn’t bunt him. It’s part of it, outcome bias. Got a really good contact hitter behind (Morel) if he does strike out in Nico, and they walked him. Never even came close. Comes down to bases loaded with Happ at the plate. You take your chances there every single day.”

There’s a lot to digest there, but the focus should be on the decision to bunt. There are many who just don’t like the bunt outside of a few circumstances. One would be to get the go-ahead or, preferably, game-ending run to third with fewer than two outs. In that situation, you would like someone with contact skills at the plate, but it would be understandable to do so with anyone.

In this instance, the bunt was executed to get the potential tying run to third with fewer than two outs. And the batter who stepped to the plate next had a high strikeout rate. And despite the fact Morel has put together some strong at-bats in recent weeks, his strikeouts have actually jumped of late as he’s posted a 39.1 percent rate since July 4.

But once the decision was made to send Madrigal to the plate, it made sense to bunt. Ross is right, Madrigal puts the ball on the ground a lot. But in that case, why not let Amaya bat? Amaya was hit in the hand in his previous plate appearance, so perhaps that was a factor. But he remained in the game to catch another two innings. Amaya has a low ground-ball rate and a 120 wRC+ in 112 plate appearances compared to Madrigal’s 91 wRC+ in 207.

Sure, it’s easy to second-guess after the fact. But many were likely questioning the decision once it was clear Madrigal was squaring up.

Some may have wondered why Ross sent Hayden Wesneski out in the sixth inning in a tie game. Wesneski has struggled this season against lefties, who entered the game with a .968 OPS against him.

Wesneski allowed a leadoff homer to left-handed Jeff McNeil, a double to lefty Abraham Almonte, induced a grounder to righty Mark Vientos (but Dansby Swanson failed to get the out at third) and then an RBI single to lefty Jonathan Araúz. Wesneski was then lifted in favor of José Cuas, who got through the inning without any further damage allowed.

“It wasn’t Wes’ day,” Ross said. “He had a rough outing.”

But Ross added that the team needed to “reset a lot of things going into the off day.”

What he meant was that his bullpen has been overworked over the last 16 games. It was averaging nearly four innings an outing during this stretch, and prior to Tuesday’s game, Ross made it clear the group was itching to make it to the off day.

“Trying to get to Thursday,” Ross said when asked if Monday’s game helped in any way since no high-leverage arms were used. “We’re going to communicate with those guys and be very honest and open with us about how they feel. As long as they keep doing that with us, I think the process is healthy. Try to take care of everybody and win games. Guys that are stretched thin, communicate how they feel, and guys that are rested are gonna have to step up sometimes when we are thin. Getting to Thursday at the back end of this 16 in a row will be a nice reset for us. We have a lot of off days coming up that should help.”

There will be those who question every bullpen move and wonder why the best relievers aren’t used at every possible moment. Ross has done his best to spread out the work and not ride any arms too hard. But it’s getting to a point where some of these arms are just in foreign territory. Prior to the loss, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy alluded to the need for someone like Wesneski to give them some innings.

“I could easily see a guy like him step up and have two big innings after the starter, take you one time through the order,” Hottovy said. “Bridge some of those innings where guys aren’t quite fresh and we have down days for certain guys.”

Julian Merryweather entered the season with 52 2/3 innings in his MLB career, which spanned the previous three seasons. After retiring one batter Wednesday night, he’s at 51 1/3 already this year. Mark Leiter Jr. is at 49 innings after tossing 67 2/3 last year. But a lot of those innings came in longer bursts with bigger gaps between outings. This is his first season pitching so frequently, and his 49 appearances are already 14 more than his previous career high from last season.

The same can be said for Adbert Alzolay, who is in his first season as a full-time reliever and has 44 appearances after having never pitched more than 29 games in an MLB season (which happened in 2021, and 21 of those were starts). This is the reality the Cubs are faced with this season. As he worked to get to the off day, it makes sense that Ross would try and get some innings out of Wesneski, even if it wasn’t the ideal spot.

Despite the loss, there was one big positive from Wednesday night. After not starting since Friday, Suzuki was back in the lineup and had an impressive night at the plate. He swung at the first pitch he saw and ripped a line drive into the right-center gap for a triple. In his next at-bat, he again was aggressive and drove a single to left on the first pitch he saw. His ninth-inning homer gave him multiple extra-base hits in a game for the first time since May 17.

“It was nice,” Ross said. “He put a lot of hard work in, cleared his head, and he looked really good today.”

Suzuki, speaking through interpreter Toy Matsushita on Tuesday, said the long stretch of poor results had led to his struggles becoming mental. He emphasized that he just needed to relax at the plate and that results would be the only thing he needed to build his confidence back up. That finally happened Wednesday.

“I think I was able to organize my thoughts really well before my at-bats today,” Suzuki said. “I wasn’t trying to think too much, just trying to focus on what’s in front of me, my at-bats. I was glad I was able to do that.”

The Cubs have been riding a lot of hot bats over the past few weeks. Suzuki’s slump has come at a time when it hasn’t hurt the team on the field. But eventually, others are going to hit a bump in the road. He may not need to carry them in the same fashion Cody Bellinger did in July and the early part of August, but being productive and having games like Wednesday will be needed.

“He’s an important part of our team,” Ross said. “I think that’s obvious.”

(Photo of Christopher Morel after his leadoff home run Wednesday: John Jones / USA Today)

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