SAN FRANCISCO — This is supposed to look and feel like a dress rehearsal for October, the Cubs trying to erase the San Francisco Giants from the wild-card picture and ride this momentum out of a one-game playoff.
So the Cubs wrote off Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss at AT&T Park as a learning experience, even as they slipped to 7 1/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the division and three games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for home-field advantage in a wild-card game.
“Our young guys are being schooled a bit,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “And I love it. It’s a good training ground for down the road this year.”
Maddon basically shrugged and looked at the big picture. This ended a streak where the Cubs had won six in a row and 21 of their previous 25 games. The Giants are still running 6 1/2 games behind the Cubs for the second wild card, though they could still get into the tournament by winning the National League West.
And no one should count out an organization with the talent, the nerve and the guts to win three World Series titles in five seasons.
“We have some really inexperienced people that are learning on the fly right now,” Maddon said. “So there’s nothing to be worried about or talk negatively about. We’re learning.”
Maddon pointed to Kyle Schwarber’s at-bat against Javier Lopez with runners on second and third and two outs in the seventh inning. Giants manager Bruce Bochy brought the veteran lefty in to face the rookie lefty. Lopez threw four fastballs clocked between 83 and 85 mph and struck Schwarber out swinging to end the threat and preserve a two-run lead.
“I just had to get him up in the zone,” Schwarber said. “I didn’t get him up in the zone. I was swinging at pitches down. (I) wasn’t taking very good swings at the pitches I want to. It goes back to me having to slow down the situation and not let that change the way I feel in the box.”
The Cubs might have been shut out if Jake Peavy and Buster Posey hadn’t got tangled up on Schwarber’s infield pop-up in the first inning. Posey, the franchise catcher, backed away while Peavy fell onto his back, not far from the pitcher’s mound. That allowed Schwarber, the unconventional leadoff guy, to hustle for a double and later score on Kris Bryant’s two-out, two-run single up the middle.
The Cubs are trying to hold onto their runaway-train feel and still have that regional Sports Illustrated cover. They at least look sturdy enough to make that morning’s Baseball Prospectus postseason odds (96.9 percent) hold up.
But like any contending team, the Cubs still have issues. The night before, Maddon sounded a little annoyed after having to use five relievers in a game where the Cubs had an eight-run lead and Jake Arrieta on the mound.
At a time when Maddon likes to be aggressive with his bullpen, Kyle Hendricks buckled in the sixth inning against a San Francisco lineup missing Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik and Gregor Blanco.
The Giants broke open a 2-2 game when Brandon Belt lined a ball that flew past diving center fielder Chris Denorfia for a leadoff triple. Posey then blasted a ball into the right-center field gap for an RBI double. Kelby Tomlinson added another RBI double by driving another ball into the right-field corner.
Hendricks (6-6, 4.11 ERA) gave up two runs in the first inning, and two more in the sixth, finishing with six strikeouts against three walks.
“Kyle was still throwing the ball really well,” Maddon said. “And then you look at the options right there, and I thought he was the best option in that particular moment.
“He was still in pretty good shape, I thought. I didn’t see any like lack of or decline in his stuff.”
Up next is Madison Bumgarner, last year’s World Series MVP, on Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, followed by Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
“We’re getting tested,” rookie shortstop Addison Russell said. “That’s what we came here (for).”