DETROIT -- The Cubs know what they need from Drew Smyly. And he knows what he has to offer. Both sides know that Smyly is more than capable of delivering.
It just hasn’t come together yet.
This marked another chapter in Smyly's battle to stick in the rotation, and while Chicago’s 8-6 loss to the Tigers on Tuesday night came at a time when every win counts during the postseason push, there are personal wins at stake, too, as the veteran left-hander fights to keep the job title he’s held for all but one of his 10 Major League seasons.
“I'd love to pitch better. The team needs me. I need to pitch better,” Smyly said afterward. “You know, these games should be fun; they're meaningful. And I just have to play better.”
With the loss, the Cubs (65-60) fell 3 1/2 games behind the Phillies (69-57) for the top National League Wild Card spot. They are tied with the D-backs (66-61) for the second spot, while the Reds (65-61) and Giants (65-61) both sit a half-game out for the final berth.
When Smyly took the hill at Comerica Park, he did so knowing his recent work had bought him another crack at the rotation. Three scoreless relief appearances during which he’d allowed just two hits across three innings had bolstered both his and the Cubs’ confidence a bit, and both sides were eager to see how that played out.
Smyly answered with a mixed bag, showing flashes of dominance in the middle frames of his 3 2/3-inning affair but weathering blows early and late.
“I thought he was settling in right there until that last inning,” manager David Ross said. “A couple of soft-contact balls fall in front of guys, and obviously the home run. Big, crooked numbers there. Just need to need to be a little bit better.”
While the first-inning home run Andy Ibáñez hit off Smyly was a solo shot, his fourth-inning homer scored three, turned a tie game into a 7-4 deficit and effectively marked the end of a night the Cubs' starter had worked hard to bring back to even.
Ibáñez was certainly the biggest thorn in Smyly’s side in his first turn back in the rotation. The 34-year-old lefty worked through a 25-pitch first inning, then trimmed that number to 15 in the second and 11 in the third, appearing to find his rhythm and preparing to give the relief corps a bit of a breather.
Twenty pitches into the fourth, though, the Tigers had erased all the good a pair of two-run home runs from Dansby Swanson and Jeimer Candelario had done in the top of the inning.
Swanson added a two-run single in the fifth to cut Chicago's deficit to 7-6, but the Cubs lacked one last push.
Called into early action, Hayden Wesneski (2 1/3 innings) and Daniel Palencia (one inning) entered behind Smyly and worked scoreless outings. Wesneski in particular was sharp, allowing just one hit, striking out five and saving a run in the sixth by shooting out his glove to pluck a 98.9 mph Jake Rogers comebacker from the air.
Palencia, who saw action in both games of this series so far, fanned one in a perfect seventh.
“I’ve just been working on me and my confidence, talking with guys just to keep myself ready every day,” he said. “This is my job, and if I can throw every day, I’m ready to throw every day.”
Like Smyly, Wesneski began the season as a starter, and while Ross isn’t ready to make any changes just yet, saying, “It’s [Smyly's] first start back, let’s give him a little bit of grace,” Wesneski seems to be the most viable solution to move up from the bullpen should there come a point where a decision needs to be made.
Chicago is willing to give Smyly a bit of a longer leash because, as Ross pointed out, the Cubs are shorthanded with Marcus Stroman on the injured list and there’s no clear better option to trot out in the short term.
The bottom line remains: Seven earned runs won’t work for a team in the playoff hunt.
And Smyly understands that better than anyone right now.
“It’s not my decision,” Smyly said regarding whether he would stay in the rotation, “but yeah, I need to pitch better, obviously.”