Zac Gallen slows Cubs, who continue to learn what playoff baseball may look like

CHICAGO — Facing Cy Young Award contenders isn’t supposed to be easy. Teams have to grind through the best of the best if they want to reach the top of the league. Over the past 10 days, the Chicago Cubs have won games started by Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Logan Webb, some of the best arms in the National League.

On Friday afternoon, they were bested by another ace, Arizona Diamondbacks righty, Zac Gallen. Gallen threw a complete game shutout, allowing just three hits (all singles), while walking one and striking out nine. He barely allowed much hard contact, but the few times he did, he was aided by a 12 mph strong wind in from left field.

“He was really good, man,” manager David Ross said. “(We) hit some balls hard at times and wind kinda knocked down maybe a couple balls that might sneak out on a windy day going the other way. I thought he pitched phenomenal.”

There were just 10 balls hit 98 mph or higher on the day and the Cubs had seven of them. But only one of those landed for a hit. In the first inning, it appeared Nico Hoerner had gotten ahold of one as he pulled a low fastball that seemed destined for the bleachers. Instead, it fell harmlessly into Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s glove for an out.

“I definitely thought that had a chance off the bat,” Hoerner said. “But obviously with the wind blowing in and it was a higher-hit ball that was hit well but not crushed. That’s part of playing here.”

Hoerner nailed what went wrong. Despite being hit at 98.7 mph, that ball had a launch angle of 32 degrees, just enough for the wind to knock it down. With a man on base in the eighth, Nick Madrigal hit another ball that appeared to be enough to give the Cubs the lead. It was probably hit at the right trajectory (28 degrees), but probably not hard enough (90.7 mph) and again, it was merely an out. Those were the only two balls hit over 300 feet on the day until Gurriel Jr.’s ninth-inning lineout.

“The series we just played with San Fran, it’s out every day,” Ian Happ said, referring to the three-game set they played earlier this week when the wind was blowing out hard for all three. “That’s Wrigley Field. Giveth and taketh away and that was a taketh away.”

Not only did the temperature drop about 20 degrees, but the wind shifted. That’s typical for September in Chicago and it can’t be used as an excuse. The Cubs know that. They put together some solid at-bats over the last two games, especially on Thursday, but just didn’t come away with enough big hits.

Jameson Taillon matched Gallen for six innings, bringing a no-hitter into the sixth and collecting nine strikeouts while walking one and allowing a lone single. He mixed in six pitches on the day, leaning on four — the four-seamer, cutter, curveball and sweeper — and was as strong as he’s looked this season.

“Great performance,” Ross said. “As good as I’ve seen the breaking ball, it was working really good. I thought the cutter backdoor was nice, he was locating. After (Corbin) Carroll (walked) in the first, he pretty much cruised the rest of the way.”

Taillon got six swings-and-misses on the four-seamer, eight strikes looking on the cutter and four on the curve. With as strong as he looked and Ross’ praise for him after the game, it would be fair to ask why he was pulled after only 77 pitches in six innings.

“He was done,” Ross said.

Pushed for more of an explanation, Ross didn’t seem keen to open up much further.

“I thought he pitched a phenomenal game,” he said. “We got a fully rested bullpen. Did a really nice job.”

The bullpen has been a point of contention lately as some high-leverage arms have struggled after being overworked due to so many hotly contested battles recently. But after playing so many tight games over a short period of time, Ross finally got to rest a few of them this week. Adbert Alzolay, who pitched a scoreless ninth, hadn’t pitched since last Friday. Julian Merryweather tossed a scoreless seventh and had been used just once since Friday. Mark Leiter Jr. has looked slightly off with his splitter of late but after working just once over the past four days, he seemed much sharper.

It was the single Leiter allowed to Carroll in the eighth that drove in the lone run of the game. The two-out liner from Carroll came with men on first and second and seemed to have hung up just long enough for Seiya Suzuki to make a sliding catch. But upon review, the play was overturned.

The replay didn’t show an obvious bounce, but it certainly looked to catch some grass and ricochet into Suzuki’s glove. Hopes and prayers from the Cubs’ dugout and fans all across Wrigley weren’t enough for it to remain an out.

“I saw a trap, unfortunately,” Hoerner said about his view from the infield. “It was obviously really close, closer than I originally thought. Sometimes on those replays, it’s called one way on the field and you hope there’s not enough evidence to overturn it even if it looks like it. But … yup.”

Perhaps that’s not an issue if Ross never pulls Taillon. The big point of contention doesn’t seem to be that he went to Merryweather, Leiter and Alzolay, but that before calling upon Leiter, he went to sidearmer Jose Cuas.

Ross has loved what he’s seen from Cuas since he was acquired at the deadline. The righty has a poise and way about him that stands out and it’s clear he’s not afraid of the moment. Coming into Friday, he had a 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings with the Cubs. But it’s his 18.3 percent walk rate in those outings that give many pause about him working in the big moments.

But looking at that would be ignoring full context. When Cuas came to the Cubs, the coaching staff immediately discussed a plan to figure out what type of slider would be best for him. The one he’d been using was all over the place, shifting from a sweeper to a gyro slider without any rhyme or reason. But after some video analysis, they realized his middle finger was coming off the ball, leading to his index finger putting too much pressure on it and throwing things out of whack.

Cuas has slowly worked on correcting that and believed he’d found his best self recently. Over his previous five outings, he walked no batters while striking out five and allowing just one hit over 4 2/3 innings. It’s not a large sample size, but with the change in pitch mix, it felt like a legitimate reason to trust that he may be figuring things out.

But on this day, Cuas allowed a hard-hit single, then a walk before striking out Jordan Lawlar and leaving in favor of Leiter. As a whole, Ross’ bullpen usage made general sense. He called upon Merryweather for the Diamondbacks’ 3-4-5 hitters in the seventh, choosing him over Taillon facing that trio a third time, which Taillon felt was acceptable even if he believed he had more in the tank.

“(Ross) kind of talked to me a little bit,” Taillon said. “I knew going into today we had a rested bullpen. I totally get it. We’re in September against another team that’s in the hunt. Every pitch matters. I think they felt like they got to the end of the road with me and we were about to turn the lineup over. I understood.”

With three lesser righties coming up to start the eighth, the options were Cuas, Brad Boxberger, Daniel Palencia, Drew Smyly, Luke Little and Hayden Wesneski. Little is a lefty and hasn’t earned those moments just yet. Smyly doesn’t make much sense there and Wesneski just pitched the previous night. Boxberger had come off the injured list earlier in the day and hadn’t pitched in a big-league game since May.

With a pocket of switch hitter, lefty and switch hitter due up after those three righties Cuas faced, it made sense to save Leiter. So the debate is probably Palencia, Cuas (who Ross clearly trusts), or sticking with Taillon in the seventh and pushing Merryweather to the eighth. Perhaps with a lead, his thinking would have been different, but Ross wanted to lean on his rested bullpen and send Taillon out on a high note rather than risk the pitcher with an ERA pushing 6.00 running into trouble with the heart of the order.

It didn’t work out as hoped. But win or lose, these are the types of games that will prep the team for the postseason. They eked out a few recent games against some aces and didn’t give at-bats away on a tough day to hit Friday. Still, they didn’t do enough and days like that aren’t out of the ordinary against pitchers like Gallen.

If there’s one thing this team has proven, it’s that they continually find a way to fight through bad moments. A two-game losing streak, one against one of the best pitchers in baseball, won’t have them hanging their heads. If anything, with their ace, Justin Steele, going Saturday, they’ll be as confident as ever.

“What I’ve learned over my experiences, if you want to get to the top of the mountain, you gotta beat the best,” Ross said. “The more you face the best, the better you are.

“When you watch guys perform against the best, pull out wins and have good at-bats, that’s another feather in the cap to give you confidence when you go into (October). Now you still gotta go do it. Lights are a little brighter, the playoffs are different. But, when you’re able to be a part of those battles throughout the season, that definitely helps.”

(Photo of Zac Gallen: Matt Marton / USA Today)

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