Cubs stay close, but swept by LA after huge 1st

Higgins' grand slam gives early lead, but Chicago falters again vs. NL's best

July 11th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- Amid the rubble of a lost weekend at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs will search for remnants to savor.

Although hurt by their bullpen and considerably by their defense, the Cubs managed to be competitive against the National League’s top team on the final road trip of the first half.

There were late leads, early leads, the return of two-fifths of the starting rotation and the first-career grand slam from P.J. Higgins. In his 11th game Sunday after returning from shoulder surgery, David Bote hit his first home run of the season.

But Higgins’ slam and Bote’s blast merely were a part of the most recent frustrating defeat: a slow burn of an 11-9 loss to the Dodgers.

“This series was four really close games that we played until the end in all of them and had chances,” said Ian Happ, who had a roller-coaster of a weekend with the losses wrapped around his first All-Star Game selection. “We’ve been saying this over and over and over, but we’re close. We keep putting ourselves in positions to have chances to win, and that’s half the battle.”

Monday’s well-placed day off leads into a six-game homestand that rolls into the All-Star break. Heading home affords the chance for manager David Ross to polish the details and work on a late-inning finishing kick.

Even if the playoffs aren’t in the near future, Ross believes he can see the horizon from here.

“Look, we have a great vibe in there, great human beings,” Ross said. “I think they know the path of trying to get better every single day and the hard work it takes and the growth. There are conversations around the batting cage and there are conversations in the clubhouse between the coaches and players.”

There also was heartbreak aplenty in the series. A Seiya Suzuki dropped fly ball started the Dodgers’ comeback on Friday. The Cubs led 2-1 in the seventh inning Saturday only to see Los Angeles wiggle out of trouble again. On Sunday, not one, but two five-run leads disappeared in the daytime pinball machine that is Dodger Stadium.

Cubs players were quick to have Suzuki’s back, but it doesn't make the losses much easier to stomach.

“We have a really close group that roots for one another and fights tooth and nail; we’ve proven that with the best teams in the game, consistently,” Ross said before Sunday’s game. “Are we where we want to be, and at the end of the day do wins and loses matter? Absolutely. But those guys understand that we’re going to be fighting for championships real soon.”

“Soon” is a relative term. Patience meters in the stands tend to run quick and hot.

Yet for all the weekend lumps absorbed, the Cubs learned they will send two players to L.A. for the All-Star Game, with Happ hearing of his honor after Willson Contreras was named a starter Friday. Whether Contreras remains into September or is flipped to enhance the long-term vision remains to be seen.

News of Happ’s honor sent cheers through the clubhouse. It was that closeness that Ross talked about, but using the goodwill in order to turn away the Dodgers proved vexing.

“I think the environment got to us a little bit and things sped up at times for a couple of guys," Ross said. “There are some areas where you can draw some positives offensively and things we did well, but you have to be able to limit the damage when things start to get out of control. We didn’t do a good job of that today.”

Not only did Drew Smyly give up four runs Sunday, so did Matt Swarmer in just two-thirds of an inning, though only one was earned. Mark Leiter Jr. gave up an unearned run in a third of an inning after he started Thursday and went five innings.

“It was a tough first game back, obviously, but you look at it and yeah, you want better results, but I don’t feel like I was getting hit around,” Smyly said. “Two first-pitch singles that fell in, a ground ball through the hole. I made a really good pitch to Will Smith hoping to get a ground ball in the first inning and he did a great job of keeping his hands in.”

Smith’s RBI double brought home the first of the Dodgers' 11 runs. Yet in the four defeats, the Cubs had a -7 run differential, or a margin of 1.75 runs per game. It was both so far and yet so close to being the team that entered with six victories in its previous eight games.

“I think we’re all just sick of losing, but I think you can look back at a lot of our season and we have been in a lot of games,” Smyly said. “We’ve had a lot of extra-inning games. … We’re right there with everybody, day in and day out. We just haven’t been able to pull it out. That’s usually the difference between really good teams and not-so-good teams.