PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs got the big hits and big innings they needed, along with some highlight-reel fodder in the field. They just about got their most important need of all: a win, especially one on the road.
But an inability to close it out in the ninth inning, when the Pirates rallied to walk off for a 6-5 win, quickly turned the game from one to build on to the toughest loss in a series at PNC Park that’s now one defeat from a four-game sweep.
“These kind of losses are difficult,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “but you’ve got to come back and play the next day.”
Maddon pointed to a number of highlights in the game that showed a “better brand of baseball.” The Cubs racked up defensive gems, like David Bote's sprawling throw to prevent a leadoff hit in the seventh and Willson Contreras' laser to the plate from right field to nab the game-tying run in Melky Cabrera and end the eighth. Victor Caratini, who Maddon said “was not supposed to play today,” provided his first career multi-homer effort with blasts in the second and seventh innings.
But with newly signed star closer Craig Kimbrel on the bump in the ninth, the defense came up on the short end. Contreras, making his fourth career appearance in right field, was unable to make another clutch play on a high fly ball from Jung Ho Kang with a runner on first. The catcher almost caught up to the ball in time, but it knocked off his glove and down for a double, despite an expected batting average of .040.
Adam Frazier hit a chopper to Addison Russell the next at-bat, and the second baseman fired home instead of to first for the second out, as Maddon wanted the infield to do. It was off the line and a bit late, allowing the tying run to score.
“It had to be a perfect play,” Russell said. “I don’t regret my decision going home, but that play has to be perfect to be made.”
It turned out to be quite costly. Corey Dickerson flied a ball to left field, and instead of being the third out, he became the walk-off hero.
Given that the heartbreaking loss came on the same day that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hinted at potential shakeup as the club continues to stumble, it’s even harder to focus on the positives.
“Change is obviously called for if we keep playing like this,” Epstein told WSCR-AM 670 on Wednesday morning.
Kimbrel has entered the team’s equation in the middle of this tough stretch, in which the Cubs have gone 8-15 in their last 23 games and 3-10 in their past 13 road contests. Even after his first blown save with the team on Wednesday, he still feels the presence of an optimistic pulse in the clubhouse.
“I don’t think this will linger,” Kimbrel said. “I’m sure we’ll get on a good roll and never look back.”
But to do that, the Cubs have to make a breakthrough sooner than later. The National League Central spread shrank to 4 1/2 games between first and last place with the Brewers’ loss on Wednesday, and Chicago still has a trio of road games to play before it can try to hit reset during the All-Star break.
The need to stay focused in the midst of frustrations was enough to draw the stoic words of Winston Churchill from Maddon before the game: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Wednesday's starter, Yu Darvish -- who allowed four runs on seven hits in 6 2/3 innings -- called back to his 2017 season with the Dodgers, when the eventual World Series contestants hit a streak of 11 consecutive losses in early September, and how the players had to “keep their heads up” before a breakthrough came.
The stretch is testing the Cubs, and Epstein is waiting to see what the results will be.
“We’re all really frustrated, obviously, and it’s a stretch of play that nobody’s proud of, nor should anybody be,” Epstein said. “It’s hard, but I think you find out a lot about what people are made of during stretches like these.”