Game 83 Recap: Reds 9 Cubs 5

A Tuesday afternoon game might stir feelings of nostalgia and encourage Cubs fans’ notions of exceptionalism, but it set everyone on the field a bit on edge, and the Cubs’ wrong-footed start ended up being too much to overcome.

Top Play (WPA): The bottom of the third inning was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. Javier Baez led off with a home run, and although the top of the hill the Cubs had to climb still seemed distant at that moment, it would soon come into view. Kris Bryant also belted a solo homer, after which a somewhat rattled Brandon Finnegan walked Anthony Rizzo.

That brought up Addison Russell, whose peculiar struggles against left-handed pitchers (despite being a right-handed batter, and handling right-handed hurlers quite well) have been a constant source of discussion and debate. Finnegan fanned Russell in the second inning, but this time, on an 0-1 pitch, Russell pounced on a mistake pitch and drilled it into the left-field bleachers. It was such a line drive (with a launch angle of 23 degrees) that it didn’t have a chance to fly all that far, but it easily cleared the fence, bringing the Cubs to within a run (+0.150 WPA). The Cubs would never be closer, though another Russell homer in the fifth inning did bring the margin back to a single run.

Bottom Play (WPA): That brilliant (but ultimately insufficient) third-inning rally would have felt a little bit more meaningful if, by that point, it was not already clear that John Lackey wasn’t going to contain the Reds. Lackey had awful command in the early going, walking three batters in the first frame and five in total, over six innings. He gave up two runs in the first inning despite allowing just one hit, a Brandon Phillips single. In the second, he almost escaped trouble. A leadoff single by Eugenio Suarez augured ill, but Lackey induced a harmless fly ball from catcher Ramon Cabrera, and Anthony Rizzo cut down Suarez at second on a would-be sacrifice bunt by Finnegan. Lackey then got ahead of Zack Cozart 1-2, but then made a bad mistake, and Cozart launched a two-run home run to double the Reds’ cushion (-0.187 WPA). That kind of poor execution in key moments typified Lackey’s afternoon.

Key Moment: Without question, the most important turning point of this contest came in the top of the sixth inning. That’s when Reds manager Bryan Price lifted Finnegan (who had made 95 pitches and faced 24 batters in five innings) in favor of Raisel Iglesias. It’s been a strange season for Iglesias, but as the Reds coax him back from shoulder issues that stole much of his first half, he’s pitching in a role I wish still existed for pitchers healthy and otherwise, throughout the league. He has top-shelf stuff and pretty fair command of it, but the wild thing about him is his ability to give batters many different looks without losing consistent command. He’s been a multi-inning weapon in a bullpen that desperately needed one.

The Cubs had a rare chance to get to Iglesias in the sixth inning, though. David Ross laid down a bunt toward third base and got a single out of it, though he nearly stumbled and fell Jake Taylor-style in the process. Then Iglesias hit pinch-hitting Jeimer Candelario in the foot. There was a moment when it felt like, even though the Reds had called upon one of their two reliable relievers, the Cubs would storm back and tie the game, if not take the lead.

Then, inexplicably, acting manager Dave Martinez had Javier Baez lay down a bunt. That Baez failed in his endeavor, popping the bunt back to Iglesias for the first out, is a secondary concern. The big problem here is that Baez was asked to bunt at all. Iglesias has a wicked slider and a low arm slot, and maybe he would have easily whiffed Baez. We don’t know. What we do know is that the tying run was on second base, the go-ahead run was on first, and the man at the plate came into today’s action hitting .292/.330/.528 in 112 plate appearances since June 1, before homering in his first plate appearance of the game. That bunt was a massive mistake, and the Cubs’ momentary opportunity to strike against a tough pitcher passed. Iglesias would cruise through the rest of three scoreless innings, and the game was never again as much in doubt.

Trend to Watch: The Cubs have, for non-partisan observers, ascended to the top of the baseball heap while remaining strikingly likable. It’s one of their signature traits. On Tuesday, that likability was absent. John Lackey, so good at channeling external adversity into elevated focus and performance (even if it comes with unorthodox and sometimes inappropriate interactions with teammates) encountered a foe he handles much less well on Tuesday afternoon—internal adversity. He had no command, walking five Reds hitters by the third inning, and allowed his frustration to create a downward spiral.

Ross, often a source of calm for pitchers who struggle, made a crucial first-inning mistake, and allowed the frustration of that to create an unnecessary argument in the bottom of the second—an argument that led to Joe Maddon being ejected.

This is supposed to be the team immune to the weight of expectations, and to the grind of the long MLB season. They’re supposed to be uniquely able to weather the bad times. They’ve put on a brave, even dismissive face about every rough patch they’ve hit so far this season, making a fairly grand show of being loose despite their recent struggles. None of that has been in evidence of late. The team is barking at umpires more often and more angrily, pressing on the field, making bad mistakes, and showing in their body language and comportment that their unfazed attitude is, for the moment, a facade.

There’s no reason it should be. Without much cause, the Cubs are losing their poise and good humor. Most of their recent losses have been close (even agonizingly close, and perhaps that’s part of the problem). They’re obviously and significantly diminished by the absences of Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, and Tommy La Stella, and the decision to give up some bullpen depth so as to get Adam Warren ready for a rotation-spelling start on Wednesday. They’ve played 20 road games and eight home games in the last month, and the aggregate level of their competition over that span has been quite tough. They’re up to 18 games since their last off day, and have five more to go before the All-Star break. They still have a wide and comfortable lead in the NL Central. If this team is the process-oriented, happy-go-lucky, bulletproof team they believe themselves to be, they just need to tap into that, and understand that this stretch of rough results isn’t indicative of their identity as a team.

What’s Next: Warren will make his start tomorrow, giving the five primary starters a much-needed break from being turned around without an extra day so many times in a row. Talented young right-hander Anthony DeSclafani will oppose him, as the Reds try to win the series. The game starts at 1:20, and you can find it on CSN Chicago.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports.

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