Cubs on wrong side of 'very fine line'
LOS ANGELES -- Javier Báez hopped on first base, took a few steps and then turned around to make the slow walk back to the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. The sinking line drive he sent to center field in the ninth inning Sunday wound up in the glove of a diving Alex Verdugo, who stood and yelled and pumped his fist in celebration of the game-ending catch.
"They caught a line drive. We lose," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
In a 3-2 loss at Dodger Stadium, that was the final period on a game that was decided by inches and changed the tone of the conclusion of this road trip for the Cubs. Had Baez's ball dropped, Chicago might have been on its way to a second straight rally against closer Kenley Jansen. Instead, the Cubs headed home on the heels of a disheartening 2-5 slog through Colorado and Los Angeles.
A squibber off the end of the bat of Willson Contreras led to a shift-defying single that sparked a two-run showing against the increasingly intimidating Hyun-Jin Ryu. A pitch that José Quintana intended to fire in on the hands to Cody Bellinger in the sixth leaked over the middle and led to game-tying home run. A throw to the plate by left fielder Kris Bryant in the eighth was off just enough for Chris Taylor's sprint from second to home to give Los Angeles the lead for good.
Then in the ninth, Baez lined out with the game's tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
That all makes for a good game -- or a "really good show," as Quintana phrased it after the loss -- but there is little solace there for the Cubs when the defeat knocked them a game back of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central.
"It's just a very fine line in games against guys that good," Bryant said. "It's a good team over there, so you can't make mistakes or have bad at-bats. You've just got to compete better."
That echoed the message that Maddon sent in the wake of the latest losing journey away from Wrigley Field.
While there were competitive games, combined with a string of quality opposing pitchers, Chicago's showing against the Rockies and Dodgers dropped the team's ledger to 15-21 on the road this year. That includes a 3-10 mark over the past two trips, which also included stops in St. Louis and Houston. Those are all potentially postseason-bound teams, making this no-excuses for a Cubs team that wants to win another World Series.
"Listen, we've got to figure out a way to finish them off," Maddon said. "I'm not going to back off of that. Our guys know the same thing. I'm not saying anything that [they don't know]. Everybody, we all feel the same way. We played well. We played a lot of good games on this trip, but only won two of them. That's the part that's bothersome to us.
"We're better than that. We know we're better than that. We've just got to keep pushing it."
The Cubs have actually scored more runs per game on the road (5.4) than at home (4.9) to this point this season. The biggest difference has been the overall production of the pitching staff. Chicago has a 3.03 ERA at Wrigley Field, where the club has rattled off 24 wins in 35 games so far. On the road, the Cubs have turned in a 4.77 ERA.
Maybe it can be chalked up to the quality of opponents in smaller samples through the season's first two-plus months. Even so, the Cubs know it is something that needs to change if they want to overtake Milwaukee in the division and experience a deep run through October.
"We'd like to try to find a way to get some big road wins and turn that around," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this weekend. "We can't keep on making up for our road trips with great homestands. We have to try to find a way to get in a rhythm on the road as well."
One of those "big wins" arrived Saturday night, when Anthony Rizzo belted a two-run homer in the ninth inning off Jansen to deliver a 2-1 victory for the Cubs. That, however, turned out to be Chicago's lone victory against a Los Angeles team that Chicago has plenty of history with over the years in the postseason.
Maddon said, if anything, these past four games showed once again how close the Cubs and Dodgers are to each other in terms of skill.
"It reemphasizes how equal both teams are -- I really do," Maddon said.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did not disagree.
"They're a good club," Roberts said. "The core group has won a championship before. They play the right way, can win in a lot of ways. I really like their starting pitching. Obviously with the addition of [Craig] Kimbrel, it tightens up their [bullpen]. Position-player group is dynamic -- kind of like ours. Very similar clubs."
And, when teams of that caliber collide, a ninth-inning liner to center might be the difference.
"It's tough," Baez said. "Obviously, like I've said, we've got similar teams. It's going to be a really close game most of the time against them. It was fun. It was fun to be out there and compete the whole series, even though we lost the series. We had great competition."