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The only thing that matters right now, considering the position the Cubs are in, is winning ballgames.
They entered Wednesday with a half-game lead on the third National League Wild Card spot. With less than two weeks left in the season, they just need stack wins and keep the teams below them in the standings at bay. And for the first three innings of their tilt with the Pirates, Justin Steele looked like he’d lead the way to a second straight ‘W’.
Steele escaped a jam in the first inning to keep the game scoreless, and he then sent down six straight in the second and third. He struck out six batters in that stretch, the first two looking and the last four swinging. After a tough outing in Arizona that saw him give up two three-run home runs, he looked much more like the guy who’d spent all season cementing himself as an NL Cy Young contender.
But then things unraveled in the fourth. The Pirates started the inning with six straight singles. Steele didn’t record an out before exiting the game, and he was charged with six earned runs in the frame (matching a season high).
“It happened fast,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
Pittsburgh’s seven-run fourth inning made the difference. Ian Happ’s fifth-inning grand slam wasn’t;t enough to turn the game in his team’s favor, and after rebounding from a tough roadtrip with a blowout win in the series opener, the Cubs (79-73) dropped Game 2 of the three-game set, 13-7.
“Just kind of seemed like, whether they hit it hard or not, if they put it in play, it was going to find some grass and be a hit,” Steele said. “It was just one of them nights. Just kind of have to tip your cap to them. The balls they put in play just were able to be hits. You just have to move on from it.”
That last part is the key for the Cubs — move on from it.
Their ace got roughed up, their bullpen didn’t hold things down later on and their offense, despite putting up seven runs, couldn’t overcome the deficit themselves. It’s a tough loss to swallow after such an impressive performance Tuesday.
Nonetheless, it’s a loss the Cubs have to wash off quickly. The series finale awaits Thursday, and with only 10 games left, they must shift their focus to the next game.
Take it from Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who spoke in the home dugout at Wrigley Field before Tuesday’s contest: “We had put ourselves really in the catbird seat at one point, and obviously this road trip certainly hurt that. But we would’ve loved to be in this position in the middle of July. We’re here right now, and we have 12 games to play really well. That’s the nice thing is that we’re still very much in a situation where, if we play well, then we should be playing in October.”
Since then, the Cubs have split the first two games of the series. But coming off a 2-8 stretch, he kept the perspective that the season wasn’t over. They were still very much in a position to make the playoffs. If the Cubs could just move past that tough stretch and get back to winning, time remained to play themselves into October.
Those words still ring true, even after suffering their ninth loss in their last 12 games. The three teams directly below them in the Wild Card standings (Marlins, Reds and Giants) all lost Wednesday, too. That means the Cubs maintained their half-game lead on the last Wild Card spot, so despite falling seven games back in the division, making the playoffs absolutely remains a possibility.
There’s inherent pressure in this race, with each game potentially deciding who’s in and who’s out in the end. But there have been no signs that anyone in the clubhouse is feeling it.
“We’ve come back from big deficits in games, we’ve come back from deficits in playoff races already this year,” Nico Hoerner. “Even within the losses that we had in that road trip, I felt like the character and effort of the group never wavered.”
It starts from the top. Ross has said all season that the Cubs can’t get too high or too low when the good or bad moments come.
That message has been taken to heart by the players. Sure, there are a number of contributors going through their first end-of-season playoff push. But there are also plenty of veterans in the clubhouse, from Happ to Kyle Hendricks to Dansby Swanson to Cody Bellinger to Yan Gomes, who’ve been in situations like this in their careers. They’ve experienced the pressures and challenges of making that final playoff push. They can help the entire team navigate the remaining stretch of the regular season.
It begins with moving onto the next day. Losses like this, especially late in the season nearing the end of a playoff race, can sting. But there’s another opportunity to get back in the win column Thursday.
So, while the number of games left continues to shrink, turning the page to the next one after a loss is what the Cubs have to do.
“We’ve been saying this all along, but you’ve just got to go day to day,” Happ said. “You’ve got to move on to the next one.”
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