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Cubs miss key men, can't retake WC lead

@MLBastian
September 18, 2019

CHICAGO -- Kyle Schwarber stopped in his tracks and pointed to the way to the Wrigley Field's visitors' dugout. The Cubs slugger took exception to the celebration of Reds reliever Amir Garrett, who yelled and flexed after striking Schwarber out in the ninth inning on Wednesday night. Right now, the

CHICAGO -- Kyle Schwarber stopped in his tracks and pointed to the way to the Wrigley Field's visitors' dugout. The Cubs slugger took exception to the celebration of Reds reliever Amir Garrett, who yelled and flexed after striking Schwarber out in the ninth inning on Wednesday night.

Right now, the only direction for the Cubs to point is to the standings, where things remained complicated in the wake of a 3-2 loss in 10 innings to Cincinnati. Missing a handful of key players, Chicago dropped two out of three to the Reds, missing a great opportunity to keep clawing into the deficits in both the National League Central and Wild Card races.

"I was frustrated obviously. He got the best of me there," Schwarber said. "I shouldn't have reacted."

Box score

What is important now is Chicago's response over the next four days.

With the loss, the Cubs slipped three games back of the division-leading Cardinals, who come to town on Thursday to start a four-game series at Wrigley Field. Chicago and Milwaukee remain tied for the NL’s second Wild Card spot, both sitting 1 1/2 games behind the Nationals for the top spot.

There are 10 games left on the regular-season schedule for the Cubs, who are trying to avoid a repeat of last season's fatiguing finish. A year ago, the Brewers chased down Chicago to force a Game 163 to decide the NL Central, which the Cubs lost before then falling the next night in the NL Wild Card Game to the Rockies.

Seven of the remaining games this season are against St. Louis. It marks the first time in the long, storied history of the rivalry that the teams will face off that many times over the final 10 games when both teams were in contention. Between the remaining series in Chicago and St. Louis, the Cubs will play a three-game set in Pittsburgh next week.

"We all know what's in front of us. We all know where we're at," said Cubs lefty Jon Lester, who allowed one run over five-plus innings. "Tonight could've been a big step for us, and we came up a little bit short. But we obviously know who's coming in this weekend and what lays in front of us. We've got to play good baseball this weekend."

What's at stake for Cardinals-Cubs series

And the Cubs will have to continue to do so without stars Anthony Rizzo (right ankle) and Javier Báez (left thumb). Others have stepped up in their absence -- notably, Victor Caratini and Nico Hoerner -- but the fear is that the lack of firepower in the offense will catch up to Chicago's offense. The Cubs managed three hits on Wednesday through 10 innings, including just one against Tyler Mahle in his six innings.

"His stuff was really that good tonight," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "And, listen, I'm not making excuses. We need to do better, no question."

Chicago's only breakthrough against Mahle was a fourth-inning double by Nicholas Castellanos, who later scored on a sacrifice fly from Schwarber. Castellanos now has 56 two-base hits on the season, making him only the eighth player since 1950 to reach at least that many in a season. The Cubs outfielder is aiming to become the first player to reach 60 since 1936.

Willson Contreras added a game-tying homer in the seventh, but that was the extent of the offense.

"Obviously, with those guys being out, it hurts," said Schwarber, referring to Rizzo and Báez. "But, like we always say, it's next man up."

The Cubs were also without both closer Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and setup man Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) against the Reds. Maddon said there is a "strong possibility" that Kimbrel is activated from the injured list on Thursday, but the timetable for Kintzler is less clear.

And while the bullpen has been superb in September -- its 2.25 ERA entering Wednesday led the Majors for the month -- there were a few hiccups on Wednesday. Pedro Strop, who has been searching for consistency all season, allowed one run on two hits in the seventh inning. Once the game reached the 10th, rookie James Norwood was pressed into duty and eventually allowed a go-ahead, run-scoring double to Jose Iglesias.

Caratini and Hoerner, who teamed up on a big inning-ending double play to help reliever David Phelps escape a jam in the sixth, tried to lead one last rally in the home half of the final frame.

With one out, Caratini slashed a pitch from Raisel Iglesias into the left-field corner for a double. Two batters later, with two outs, Hoerner sent a hard liner to right field, where Aristides Aquino made a running catch to seal the defeat for the Cubs.

"He almost had another clutch hit," Schwarber said.

It all added up to an 11th loss in 19 games against a Reds team that is playing spoiler with its focus on 2020 at this point.

That made this series one big missed opportunity for the Cubs.

"No question," Maddon said. "But we've still got plenty of opportunity. We've got to take care of it ourselves.”

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.