Winning streaks are fun trivia, but not worth getting upset about when they come to an end. Had the Cubs pushed their streak to twelve games today, they would have been no more well positioned to win the division and succeed in the playoffs than they are right now after dropping this afternoon’s game to the Cardinals. With the right perspective, this loss is much less frustrating than it feels in the moment. Take away a couple of changeups that came in too high from Kyle Hendricks and Joe Smith’s less-than-stellar audition to be a useful reliever, and there’s a lot to feel positive about, so let’s get to that first.
Hendricks is simply a marvel. He’s transformed himself from afterthought to legitimate Cy Young candidate in just a few months, and today he was at his finest—minus a couple of elevated changeups that cost two runs. Otherwise, his line of seven innings, five hits, two runs, no walks, and 12 strikeouts represents one of his best outings in his career and another notch in his best season to date. Without hanging pitches to Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, Hendricks leaves this game still scoreless and hands it over to the bullpen to finish it off. Instead, he left the game in a tie.
And that’s where it sadly unraveled. It’s not worth overreacting to, because the Joe Smith trade cost the Cubs virtually nothing and he’s there to see if he can be useful going forward. And maybe Joe Maddon got his answer to that question today. It’s frustrating now, but not devastating. This is a spot other relievers have been in this season (remember Joel Peralta?), and it’s good practice to see what you have and test every option before you dive into the critical games of October. Don’t forget the gems the Cubs found just this way last season. It’s an important part of the process of preparing for the playoffs. And right now, without Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, this bullpen is much less sturdy, as would any bullpen in baseball. This is not a unique situation.
The Cardinals used pitching prospects Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes to put together a very solid start. Weaver had a couple of pitches he probably wishes he could take back, but he threw four innings and gave up just two runs. Reyes struck out three in his three innings and allowed just two baserunners, so between the two of them, that’s seven innings and just two runs allowed. Seth Maness aside, the rest of their bullpen kept the Cubs from putting together a comeback.
Top Play (WPA): In the second inning, this looked like it was going to be the Cubs’ day. After looking impressively hard to hit in the first, Weaver gave up a leadoff double to Ben Zobrist, and then Addison Russell demolished a pitch to left to put the Cubs up 2-0 (+.142). Given the way that Hendricks would pitch, two runs felt like ample cushion, but the eighth inning would change all of that.
Bottom Play (WPA): It’s actually not the grand slam from Stephen Piscotty, because by then the lead had been lost. The bottom play came on the eighth inning wild pitch that surrendered the lead. With the bases loaded, Carl Edwards, Jr. threw a wild pitch (which Yadier Molina waved at and struck out on) that allowed Stephen Piscotty to score from third (-.228).
Key Moment: When the game was placed in Edwards’ hands in the top of the eighth, he was responsible for preserving a tie. Change a play a few nights ago or figure out how to heal a triceps, and this spot goes to Strop or Rondon, but there isn’t profound reason to believe that Edwards is much less capable. He’s just less tested in these spots, and today didn’t go well. He walked two batters and fell behind in the count before giving up a single to Matt Carpenter, so his control was clearly off. Edwards would go on to walk Jhonny Peralta and Gyorko, setting the table for the grand slam from Randal Grichuk. So the grand slam looks a lot worse on Joe Smith than it should, because the baserunners were all a product of control issues from Edwards.
Trend to Watch: Sunday night can make this memory fade quickly, but even if the Cubs lose again, they’ve given up no ground to the Cardinals in the division, and the upcoming schedule is a kind one. But keep an eye on how the bullpen is used until Strop returns. The hope appears to be that Rondon can come back Tuesday if not tomorrow, and even his return alters the landscape of the bullpen.
However, this doesn’t mean that the Cubs won’t continue to test new arms (Pierce Johnson, anyone?) or test the current ones in different ways. It looks likely that Mike Montgomery will start game one of Tuesday’s doubleheader, and Trevor Cahill may get a few spot starts in the very near future as well.
Coming Next: Tomorrow this long series concludes in the limelight of primetime with the Sunday Night Baseball billing on ESPN at 7:08 pm. For the Cubs, John Lackey (9-7, 3.56) takes the ball against Mike Leake (8-9, 4.79) for the Cardinals. Leake has not yet been the addition to the St. Louis pitching staff that they had hoped for when they signed him to a five-year deal, but he threw a quality start in his most recent outing against Cincinnati. Lackey, for his part, has thrown a quality start in each of his last four games, and has had just two outings shorter than six innings all season.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports