CINCINNATI — The Cubs have to take care of business against teams like the Cincinnati Reds, should-be sellers that can market 40 percent of their rotation (Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake), maybe even 102-mph closer Aroldis Chapman, and start playing for the future.
This four-games-in-three-days stretch at Great American Ball Park began with a 5-4 loss on Monday night, a missed opportunity for a Cubs team that needs to put together wins during this softer part of the schedule.
Once the Cubs leave Cincinnati after Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader, they get 10 straight games against last-place teams — the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers — which takes them through the July 31 trade deadline and the first weekend of August.
The Cubs are supposed to have the lineup of the future already — and will make starting pitching their No. 1 priority this summer — but Todd Frazier, Marlon Byrd and Jay Bruce combined to hit home runs that traveled 1,255 feet for the going-nowhere Reds (41-49).
“Every game’s important,” reliever Justin Grimm said afterward. “I don’t think we should look at it as an easier schedule. We got to pounce on teams when we can and not let games get away from us like this.”
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The Reds still have a lot of high-end talent, and Bruce delivered the biggest hit, a two-run, two-out, go-ahead shot in the sixth inning, crushing a Grimm fastball 456 feet into the right-field seats.
Joe Maddon has pushed so many right buttons for the Cubs (49-42) this year, and the manager didn’t need to overanalyze the decision to pull Clayton Richard after 70 pitches.
Richard had been pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in late June. The lefty still managed to keep it a 4-3 game when he got a double-play ball in the sixth inning. Grimm (1-3, 1.93 ERA) then came in and walked Frazier before giving up Bruce’s monster home run.
“That falls under the category of: the right thing to do, but it didn’t work,” Maddon said. “Frazier had two good at-bats. I’m just trying to keep it right there. Grimm’s been outstanding. He hasn’t been good. He’s been outstanding. So it’s the right spot for him, even with Bruce.”
“That’s something I’ll never do — second-guess what Joe does,” Richard said. “We have a lot of confidence in our bullpen. And nine times out of 10, that’s a different story. It’s just unfortunate it worked out the way it did.”
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The Cubs are a third-place team in the National League Central, with 15 games remaining against the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates now hold the first wild-card spot and a 4 1/2-game lead over the Cubs, who still trail the Cardinals by 8 1/2 games.
“Our goal is to win the division,” Maddon said. “I don’t want us to shy away from that. I don’t want us to think any differently than that. Like I’ve said, the threat is if you don’t do that, you might hit your mark. And that may be considerably short of even getting into the playoffs.
“I want us to play like we’re going for the division. And then if the wild card occurs, great. But I don’t want us to just aim for a wild-card slot.”