Keeping with a trend they’ve set several times this season, the Cubs turned a seemingly easy win for their opponent into a nail-biting finish Friday. If only they could reverse the part of the trend that ends with raising an “L” flag above Wrigley Field.
The Cubs engineered a ninth-inning rally off one of baseball’s premier closers, scoring three times and coming within a run of the visiting Reds, but it still wasn’t enough to come all the way back, as they dropped the first game of a three-game weekend series, 6-5.
The Cubs trailed, 6-2, heading into the final frame against Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman. The inning’s first three hitters knocked singles to load the bases with nobody out, but Chapman then struck out Anthony Rizzo and got Alfonso Soriano to fly out to right, making the Cubs’ hopes for a comeback look grim.
But a two-out rally followed. Pinch-hitter Scott Hairston walked to force in a run, and Welington Castillo followed with a two-run single up the middle that made it a 6-5 game. After Cody Ransom walked to load the bases again, Chapman was lifted from the game and replaced with J.J. Hoover, who struck out Darwin Barney to end the contest.
“Those were some great at-bats today off the best closer in the game,” manager Dale Sveum said. “There were a lot of adjustments with velocity, and hopefully we can learn from that too. Instead of waiting until the guy throws 98, we need to make those adjustments when the guys are throwing 94, as well. But those are some really, really good at-bats.”
As Sveum indicated and Starlin Castro -- who had a single in the ninth off Chapman -- affirmed, the key to besting the flame-throwing left-hander was patience.
“Be patient,” Castro said. “He throws hard, but if you go to home plate, he doesn’t throw three fastballs right down the middle. He throws a lot of balls. You can be patient and get on the bases.”
The Cubs left the bases loaded in the ninth, not cashing in when they could have done more damage, and it wasn’t the first time that happened Friday afternoon, as they stranded eight runners over the final four innings. The Cubs had two runners on after scoring twice in the sixth, and they had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh without scoring any runs. That led to the Cubs needing to make up a lot of ground in the ninth, and in the end, it sent them to their 11th loss of the year in games decided by one or two runs.
“It makes it exciting, but we’re missing that one hit,” said starting pitcher Carlos Villanueva. “We’ve lost so many games by one run, it feels like we’re very close to breaking that barrier. You see that the really good teams, the teams that are in the playoffs every year, their record is the other way. The one-run games, they always come out on top. For us, we have to get it done when it counts. And if it’s making a better pitch, if it’s a better approach at the dish, we have to do whatever it takes to improve on that.”
As for Villanueva, he allowed four runs for the second straight outing after allowing a total of five in his first four starts of the season. He took the loss and is now 1-2 on the season following his shortest start of the year at just 5 2/3 innings. Villanueva departed in the sixth after giving up a pair of RBI doubles to Jay Bruce and Devin Mesoraco that, at that point, extended the Reds’ lead to 4-0.
Villanueva’s opponent, Mike Leake, looked great through five innings, shutting out the Cubs over that span. But he also faltered in the sixth, when he allowed back-to-back RBI hits to Soriano and Nate Schierholtz. Though he also lasted 5 2/3 innings and gave up nine hits, he picked up the win, his second of the year.
Even after the Cubs cut the lead in half at 4-2 after six innings, Cincinnati added a run each in the seventh and eighth off Cubs relievers. Bruce drove in a run on an RBI groundout in an inning where the Reds stranded three of their own, and Zack Cozart’s RBI single in the eighth made it a 6-2 game before the Cubs’ rally an inning later.
It was a gloomy day at the Friendly Confines, featuring on-and-off rain showers of varying intensities and a first-pitch temperature of 41 degrees. But the baseball adage that cold, wet days are for pitchers didn’t hold true. Apparently, when there are as many cold, wet days as the 2013 season has had so far, all assumptions go out the window. The Cubs and Reds combined for 24 hits, with the Cubs banging out 15 of them for a season-high.
But, of course, the large supply of hits didn’t necessarily translate into a large supply of runs, and Sveum knew his team could have capitalized on opportunities before the ninth inning rolled around.
“We didn’t do much in the first eight innings. We left some guys out there again,” Sveum said. “And then obviously they added on a couple there. One they added on without a hit the one inning. Those are the things that come back and haunt you at the end of a game. Like I said, the tying run will get to the plate, it doesn’t matter who’s closing.”