This was a weird game. Coors Field has a reputation for pumped-up offense, and while it can be exaggerated at times, it’s very much deserved. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised when Dexter Fowler opened the game with a home run, but, y’know. Coors. And it doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised when David Dahl led off the home half of the first with a home run of his own, but, seriously. Coors. After that, though, the game settled into a rhythm that could fairly be described as “sleepy.” First pitch was thrown almost exactly two hours after it was originally scheduled, at 8:50 PM local time, thanks to a spate of showers that hit Denver. That’s 10:50 PM my time, and so when the eighth inning came around, it was well past 1:00 AM. After a cluster of Rockies hits, this sleepy game had turned into a tie, a tie that would hold into the 11th. By the time it finally ended, it wasn’t the game that was sleepy.
But at least it ended with a win. HAHA nope they actually lost, in bizarre and depressing fashion. Cool. Good.
Top play (WPA): By the time the Cubs came up in the top of the eleventh, there was a growing sense of urgency, if not desperation. The bottom of the tenth had seen the Rockies load the bases, and while the Cubs escaped the inning with the tie intact, they wouldn’t always get to face Gerardo Parra and his .268 OBP/1.4% walk rate at the crucial moment. While a fly ball and a strikeout would put the Rockies one out away from holding the tie, a Wilson Contreras single and a Ben Zobrist walk meant Dexter Fowler came to the plate with a man in scoring position. All it would take was a bloop, some little dink into the outfield with just enough distance on it for Contreras to score, and the Cubs would take the lead. That’s exactly what the Cubs got—a bloop, beyond the reach of the second baseman and in front of the center fielder, and with two outs, Contreras was running on contact and scored easily (+.342 WPA). This was a colossal swing, clearly, and it put the Cubs in a great position to win. The visiting team wins in such a scenario over 75 percent of the time, and most visiting teams don’t have Aroldis Chapman in their bullpen. All they needed was three outs. Three outs! How hard can it be?
Bottom play (WPA): Apparently, very hard. Chapman didn’t look like himself, missing badly on some pitches and failing to elicit chases on others; this is pure speculation, but Coors is known to wreak havoc on the movements of certain pitches, and it’s possible the Cubs closer was feeling the effects of altitude. In any case, after getting Daniel Descalso to ground out, Chapman gave up a single to Nick Hundley, which brought Ryan Raburn to the plate as the potential winning run. Not potential for long, however, as he crushed a Chapman pitch to the wall in deep right-center. Maybe the thin air helped that ball carry, but this was no cheap hit. It kicked away from Fowler, giving Hundley plenty of time to wheel around second and third and begin to chug for home. While he’s very far from a speedster, by the time Javy Baez cut Fowler’s throw off to the right of second base, he had next-to-no chance of getting Hundley at the plate.
At this moment in time, the Cubs had gone from almost definitely winning to disadvantaged, but not insurmountably. Hundley scoring would tie the game, but the Rockies would have only a runner on second with one out, not the most commanding position. True, the Cubs bullpen was getting thin, and Chapman would probably have to return for the twelfth (hopefully to protect a reclaimed lead), but the same was true of the Rockies bullpen. In any case, this game wasn’t yet lost, and the time to panic or take drastic action hadn’t arrived.
I’m writing this from my couch with the benefit of about thirty minutes of hindsight, however. As Baez received Fowler’s throw, he had none of this perspective, and perhaps that contributed to his decision not to eat the relay. Hundley already was nearly across the plate, and Baez had no chance of getting him, even with a perfect throw. Nevertheless, perhaps in an attempt to bend space-time and send Hundley backwards a few steps, he uncorked something other than a perfect throw that not only missed Contreras but skipped past him entirely and disappeared into the dugout. Raburn had broken for third as Baez had thrown, which meant that, with the ball out of play, the additional base he was awarded was home. The game had gone from good to bad in about eight seconds, and bad to over in about two. The Cubs could do nothing other than watch as, at the umpires’ directive, Raburn trotted home and scored the winning run (-.754 WPA). Ugh.
Key moment: Whoof. Lots to choose from tonight. The obvious pick is the disastrous eighth inning, care of Travis Wood and Carl Edwards Jr., but I discuss that below. Instead, I’ll go with Addison Russell’s plate appearance in the top of the tenth. With two outs, David Ross had singled, moving Kris Bryant into scoring position and putting a lead well within the Cubs’ grasp. This was basically the same situation that Chicago would face in the eleventh and capitalize on, and like then, all that was needed was a little bloop of any kind. Russell certainly could have replicated his massive dinger from earlier, and no one would have complained, but really, all he needed to do was get on base. Instead, he struck out, and the Cubs had to spend the next three outs on staying in the game rather than closing it out. I’m certainly not blaming Russell; in any given plate appearance, it’s more likely than not the batter will get out, and he had already done more than his share for the cause in this game. But at the time, as he went back to the dugout, it felt like the Cubs were missing on a few too many opportunities to expect to win this game. That feeling was easy to dismiss after the top of the eleventh, but it came rushing back after the bottom half, which is enough to earn the plate appearance this dubious distinction.
Trend to watch: Carl Edwards Jr. has been used in a number of high-leverage spots in the last couple weeks. With Strop and Rondon both on the disabled list, Edwards has been thrust into the role of the setup man. It’s been unexpected, but whether he’s good enough to be trusted in critical situations is a question the Cubs likely want an answer to before the playoffs. He seems to have the stuff and velocity to be another excellent option, and come October, when bullpens can pitch a much higher percentage of innings, having an excellent Edwards Jr. to back up the excellent Rondon, Strop, and Chapman is highly desirable.
Today’s game made that scenario look more like a dream than a plan, however. Travis Wood pitched a fine seventh inning, then kicked off the eighth by allowing a single and a walk. That meant Edwards Jr. came in to protect a three-run lead with the tying run at the plate. This is a risky situation, but exactly the kind of jam a team needs its reliable relievers to be able to navigate. Edwards Jr. did okay, if not well, exactly, giving up a double and two sacrifices that led to all three runs scoring and the Rockies tying the game. That’s not nearly as bad as his atrocious, four-walk appearance against the Cardinals last week, but it’s not what a team wants out of a high-leverage reliever, either. If any of the batters Edwards Jr. faced had struck out instead of putting the ball in play, the inning (and the game) would’ve looked completely different. His performance tonight was hugely important to the outcome of this specific game, but how he does in similar situations going forward will determine exactly how threatening the Cubs bullpen can be to their playoff opponents.
Coming next: Tomorrow will feature the middle game of this three-game set against the Rockies, with Mike Montgomery taking the bump for the first time as a Cub and trying to cleanse the palate of tonight’s loss. He’s pitching in John Lackey’s normal slot, who just headed to the DL in what most are describing as a mostly precautionary measure, perhaps showing the Cubs truly are beginning to plan for the playoffs. Cubs relievers threw six innings tonight, however, and Montgomery isn’t likely to go deep into the game tomorrow. As a result, pressure will be on the offense to make bullpen fatigue something other than a pressing concern. First pitch is at 7:10 PM central time, on TV at CSN and the radio at 670 The Score.
Lead photo courtesy Ron Chenoy—USA Today Sports