There’s a tendency among Cubs fans, and I suppose those of many other teams, to openly expect the worst in big moments. Some of that is just a means by which to psych themselves out and heighten the sense of relief when things end up pulling through. But it came to last night’s pivotal at-bat, that final Derek Holland fastball may has well come off the foot of Cody Parkey.
As if written in the stars, the bullpen could not hold the line over two innings after being handed a 5-0 lead. Yu Darvish was masterful, extending his walk-less streak to 102 batters while striking out 10. According to a tweet from Jesse Rogers, it was the first time 126 years that the Cubs had lost after a starter had gone at least 7 shutout innings with at least 10 K’s and no walks.
That’s probably a small sample and we don’t know how many runs they’d scored in each of the previous contests, but 5-0 should be safe no matter what the starter did. Except it wasn’t in this case, as Rowan Wick failed to record a second out in the 9th while the mismatched middle infielders behind him — David Bote and Ian Happ — failed to convert grounders hit to them.
Pedro Strop then came into a dirty inning and promptly allowed an RBI single before hitting Rhys Hoskins to load the bases for Bryce Harper. Having a lefty batter at the plate meant going with Holland, who was acquired specifically for his ability to stifle those like-handed hitters.
But there’s this funny thing about platoon splits in that they work both ways. Holland limits lefty batters, but Harper, who has traditionally fared better against righties, has actually hit southpaws better this season. His .894 OPS and 129 wRC+ are both higher than what he’s produced against righties (.849, 119) and they’re boosted by even lower strikeout numbers.
Not that Joe Maddon really had any options, since leaving Strop in there might have been equally disastrous. Holland said after the game that he felt his 2-2 offering to Harper was “a great pitch,” but he’s either glossing over the truth or he got a really awful scouting report. If you’re viewing on a device that allows social media, you’ll see that Harper’s historical production against inside fastballs from lefties shows up in dark red.
Holland went fastball middle-in on Harper, who crushed it for a grand slam. Didn't quite get far enough inside, though. The heatmaps below are Harper's AVG, SLG, and ISO against fastballs from lefty pitchers. pic.twitter.com/EvlSJIc4SJ
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) August 16, 2019
Even if the pitch had been a little higher or lower, maybe a little more inside, Harper appeared to have been sitting dead red and it was simply a matter of how far the ball traveled. It looked for a brief moment as though Holland might have been able to escape, but like Parkey striking one true after after a timeout had been called, you could near the doink coming a mile away.
Between the bullpen imploding in front of bad defense on the road, it was as though the Cubs were just dragging all their dead horses out to the middle of the field and handing out beatin’ sticks. They are now 2-5 on the current trip and need a sweep of the Pirates just to stay even before heading back to Wrigley. They’re somehow still tied for the division lead, but have now slipped back into the second Wild Card spot.
All things considered, it was just a brutal loss, one that is going to stick in their collective craw much longer than the other games that have begun to spill over the confines of Maddon’s metaphorical trash can.
“It’s No. 1, for sure,” Anthony Rizzo told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. “With the road struggles, being able to win a game here would have been nice going to Pittsburgh. But we didn’t and it’s definitely tougher this part of the season as opposed to April or May.”
Making matters even worse, if that’s even possible, was that Harper’s blast completely ruined what would otherwise have served as a springboard for Rizzo for and perhaps even Kyle Schwarber. The first baseman has been in a prolonged power slump, but smacked his first dinger since July 27, and only his third since June 15, to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. Schwarber later became the fastest Cub to 100 career homers when his 28th longball Garfunkle’d the Cubs’ scoring.
Fewest games to 100 career HR
among players who debuted with #Cubs
Kyle Schwarber 453
Kris Bryant 487
Ernie Banks 500
Javier Báez 602
Billy Williams 611
Ron Santo 708
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 16, 2019
There’s been a lot of blame going around since that Harper homer escaped Earth’s gravity and there’s still plenty more to come. While Holland was quick to take it on himself when he saw social media indictments of his infielders, this was far more than just one player’s loss. It was a mix of poor decisions and poorer execution, both of which have been far too commonplace this season.
Pinning this loss, or any loss, on an individual isn’t going to solve anything and probably won’t make you feel better, though maybe I’m wrong on that last part. At this point, there’s just nothing left to say about the Cubs’ uncanny ability to suck on the road. As huge as it would be at this point to take care of business in Pittsburgh, things have to get much better over the ensuing five weeks if the Cubs want to have a legitimate shot.
But hey, maybe Thursday night really was rock bottom and it’s all going to improve from there. Yeah, that sounds good, let’s roll with it.