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Waves of Cubs fans at Wrigley Field on Thursday started heading to the exits with one out in top of the ninth. It was tough to blame them in the moment.
All season long, in close games at home, plenty of fans hung around until the very end, hoping they’d get the chance to sing “Go Cubs Go” after a hard-fought victory. But when a full-count slider from Julian Merryweather ended up in the right-field bleachers, turning a one-run deficit into a four-run deficit on a three-run homer, it felt like many had seen enough.
The Cubs (79-74) had their chances to take control throughout the ballgame. Instead they lost the series finale to the Pirates, 8-6, dropping a series at home when they could ill afford to do so. With the loss, they’re now tied with the Marlins for the last National League Wild Card spot — though after losing the season series, Miami would earn the tiebreaker and would be that third Wild Card team if the season ended Thursday.
“That’s not a good team that just took two out of three from us — or not our caliber team, I believe,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’ve just got to turn it around. It’s on me. It’s on the guys in that room.”
Nine games remain in the Cubs’ season, and the playoffs are still in play. But after seeing them struggle to put every aspect of the game together at the same time — not just in this loss but for most of the stretch that’s seen them lose 10 of their last 13 games — confidence from onlookers that they can flip the switch fast is low.
Thursday night felt like reminder after reminder of what’s gone wrong in this two-week slide.
Kyle Hendricks kept the game close for six innings, allowing just three runs (only one earned due to a Dansby Swanson fielding error in Pittsburgh’s two-run third inning). In that time, the Cubs put 10 runners on base, five of them reaching scoring position. And none of them scored.
Swanson played a big part in the deficit. Outside of the aforementioned error — of which Hendricks defended him by saying, “I’ve got to pick him up there” — he stepped to the plate three times in the first five innings with runners on base and at least one in scoring position. Here’s how those three at-bats went: an inning-ending fielder’s choice in the first, an inning-ending strikeout (with the bases loaded) in the third and a fly out in the fifth.
“Early on, first five or six innings just weren’t very acceptable for myself,” Swanson said. “Obviously, it’s something I take accountability for.”
When the script flipped in the later innings, and when Swanson came through with an RBI single and a two-run homer in his last two plate appearances, the pitching faltered.
Swanson’s RBI knock in the seventh got the Cubs to within two runs. Then Brad Boxberger gave two back to the Pirates in the eighth. The Cubs responded with a three-run rally in the bottom of the inning. Then Merryweather — probably the most trusted healthy arm in the bullpen at the moment — gave up that three-run shot in the ninth that ultimately made the difference.
“We didn’t play our style of baseball,” Ross said. “When we hit, we didn’t pitch. Some calls didn’t go our way. Just a little bit of, like, we’re not going to win when we don’t play clean baseball. … Mistakes in the field. Guys that don’t make mistakes made mistakes. That’s just where we’re at right now. We’ve got nine games left to play our style of baseball. We’ve got to play better.”
After the Cubs finished off a sweep of the Giants on Sept. 6, they were 12 games over .500 with a firm grasp on the second Wild Card spot. FanGraphs gave them a 92.4 percent chance to make the postseason at the time.
The last two weeks taken a big chunk out of those odds. They’ve lost four straight series after losing only two before then after the All-Star break. Their playoff odds on FanGraphs fell to 33.4 percent after Thursday.
Timely hitting early on, better execution from the bullpen, cleaner defense and some calls going their way late — like a borderline pitch called ball-four instead of strike-three on Boxberger to start his inning and a bad called strike-three that should’ve been ball-four on Seiya Suzuki in the ninth — probably change the outcome Thursday.
But that didn’t happen, and they can’t hang their heads now. Plain and simple, they just have get back to winning ballgames.
“Shit, there’s stuff all over the place that we can point to,” Ross said. “It’s time to put up wins. No excuses. We’ve got to put up wins.”
Of course, the guys in the clubhouse are going to try and remain positive. Taking things one game at a time got them from 10 below .500 in June to where they are now. They won’t stray from that mentality, even if many on the outside believe the season is over.
“It just kind of gets magnified at this point in the season when things don’t go your way,” Swanson said. “It’s easy to look around and say, ‘Why can’t we do it?’ It’s not that we can’t; it’s just that we didn’t. Everyone in this locker room believes in one another and knows that it’s just a matter of time [until] things get rolling. And hopefully that starts tomorrow.”
Said Hendricks, who’s been in his fair share of playoff pushes in his Cubs career: “In some of those pushes, we’ve had stretches like this real late in the year and still pulled it out. I mean, every game is tough. Every game is critical. … We’ve just got to keep the simple focus is the bottom line. Simple focus, attack tomorrow. We have a great opportunity to go out and get back on track tomorrow.”
Again, the season isn’t over. They have the NL-worst Rockies in town this weekend before the season-ending road trip to Atlanta and Milwaukee. The pressure will only rise as they get closer to the end of the year, but a spot in the postseason is still possible if they turn things around quickly.
Whether they can do that remains to be seen.
“Got nine left, thank goodness,” Ross said. “Got a lot of games left to play good clean baseball, and this group is capable of doing that.”
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