David Ross saw an opening for levity, and he took it.
“That’s the kind of thing I want when I bring you in (with) bases loaded, nobody out,” the Cubs' manager said to reliever Duane Underwood Jr. “A triple play.”
Underwood started off his outing Wednesday with exactly that, in a 12-7 loss that carried few other silver-lining moments for the bullpen. It was the Cubs’ first loss to the Reds, in the third of a four-game series, but not the first time the bullpen has faltered in pressure situations.
“We felt good about where all those relievers were coming in,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before the game. “Now though, it’s about getting them consistent work and seeing how they can handle some bigger moments, especially when the game’s on the line.”
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks held the Reds scoreless through three innings, but when he left the game in the fifth, the Cubs were down 4-0.
“It was a battle from the start today,” Hendricks said. “Really, it wasn’t good. Everything was up. I kind of got away with some pitches, even in the first, second inning, first time through the order. Just rolling through my delivery, just really didn’t do anything well.”
For a night when none of his pitches were working, four runs and two runners on base wasn’t terrible. The Cubs' offense has shown it can make up that kind of difference.
But the bullpen, with the glaring exception of Jeremy Jeffress’ save on Monday, has proven to be unreliable when taking over with runners on base.
“We’ve got some guys that have got to kind of step up,” Ross said, “and that’s some of the stuff that we’re finding out here early on: Who’s a guy that we can bring in, in the big situation?”
Ross didn’t find the answer on Wednesday.
Rex Brothers loaded the bases by walking the first batter he faced, Mike Moustakas. Then, he gave up a grand slam to former Cub Nicholas Castellanos.
Even after a second homer off Brothers in the same inning, the Cubs charged back. James Norwood took over for Brothers to get the final out of sixth, and the Cubs scored five runs in the seventh inning.
Then Dillon Maples took the mound. Three runs scored without him recording an out: walk, walk, error, double, walk, walk.
Underwood replaced Maples with the bases loaded and no outs. The fates stepped in.
In the moment, third baseman Kris Bryant was certain he’d caught Shogo Akiyama’s line drive just above the ground. A replay called that into question. But what mattered was third base umpire Larry Vanover’s opinion. His fist shot into the air to call the out. Bryant hopped up and stepped on third. Then, he threw to first to make it a triple play.
“I just watched the video now,” Bryant said after the game. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. … I should have just thrown it to second, and he could have thrown it to first. It would have been four outs.”
At that point, there was no use arguing whether the ball had hit the dirt. The play wasn’t reviewable.
The Cubs' bullpen needed that stroke of luck. Brothers and Maples had combined for six runs (five earned) and six walks in just over one inning.
“From a (former) catcher’s standpoint, it’s frustrating to keep giving free passes,” Ross said, “and you’re going to get into trouble at some point. So, we’ve just got to get better.”