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Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

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USA Today

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

The Cubs took the field Saturday afternoon with only a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

That number will certainly go down after another epic meltdown in a season full of disastrous moments.

Just five days earlier (after Monday's win), the Cubs had a 76.7 percent chance of October baseball.

But that's what five straight losses will do, especially when the other teams in the race keep on winning. They still couldn’t get back to their winning ways Saturday despite a hard-fought effort in a wild 9-8 loss that saw seven lead changes.

The Cubs are now 6 games back in the division and 3 games out of the final playoff spot in the National League with only seven contests remaining.

"Obviously it sucks," said Javy Baez, who struck out to end the game. "But we are really close to the other teams. We just gotta play our game — try to get hot in the last two series and see what happens when the last game is over."

"It doesn't matter how you lose at this time of the year," Anthony Rizzo said. "It sucks. A loss is a loss. Especially with seven games left. It sucks." 

Quick thoughts

—Kimbrel’s disastrous weekend

This is not what anybody had in mind when the Cubs addressed their biggest weakness and signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal in early June.

In his first 19.2 innings as a Cub, the closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory surrendered 9 home runs — the latter two coming on back-to-back pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday.

Called on to protect a 1-run lead, Kimbrel could only watch in disbelief as Yadier Molina sent his first pitch into the left-field bleachers and Illinois native Paul DeJong followed suit on the very next offering.

"It's tough. it is," Rizzo said. "Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. You don't want to ever see anybody give up runs. We have his back. It's tough. It feels bad, but he's a competitor and a champion and he'll bounce back."

Kimbrel spent most of this month on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but returned Thursday only to give up the lead and get saddled with the loss in the 10th inning after the Cubs had just pulled off an epic 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Kimbrel now has a 6.53 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs this season.

—Javy suits up

Baez scored the tying run as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but his at-bat to end the game Saturday was his first plate appearance since breaking his left thumb three weeks ago. 

He struck out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez to end the game and admitted it was a tough at-bat given the layoff.

"It was hard, especially with him out there throwing 100 mph," Baez said. "It's tough, but you gotta give it a try and try something for the team."

Baez said he hopes to be able to start the game Tuesday for the Cubs in Pittsburgh.

"I've been feeling good," he said. "It's still bothering me a little bit, but I would do anything to help my team. We're in a hard situation right now that we gotta win games and if not, we'll be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're gonna give everything, we're gonna give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back before the regular season is over. It's been a quick process, so hopefully I'll keep getting better and after the day off, I'll probably be out there."

—The winds of change

At first pitch Saturday, the wind was blowing straight out at Wrigley Field at 17 mph. That proved to be a huge factor in the game.

Each team felt the benefit of Mother Nature, with Marcell Ozuna somehow golfing this very low 0-2 pitch from Kyle Ryan into the bleachers in the top of the seventh inning for a go-ahead blast:

The Cubs’ big boost from the wind came on Tony Kemp's signature moment with the team in the bottom of the inning (though this game won’t be remembered for his heroics).

After Ben Zobrist had doubled with one out, Kemp was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and appeared to strike out, only to get new life when it turned out a balk was called. He hit the next pitch in the air to center field — deep enough to at least get Zobrist home from third as the tying run — but it wound up carrying just a few rows into the bleachers for an enormous, game-changing home run.

The Cubs had been waiting for their baseball luck to turn and I think it's safe to say the balk call qualified, though it ultimately proved to only set the stage for even greater heartbreak for the fanbase.

—Brad Wieck's big moment goes for naught

Kemp wasn't the only player to deliver his signature moment with the Cubs Saturday afternoon.

Wieck was called on to protect the 1-run lead in the eighth inning of a crucial, Game 7-esque contest Saturday — just like everybody predicted back when the Cubs traded for him on July 31. Despite walking the leadoff hitter and plunking Tommy Edman, Joe Maddon left Wieck in the game to face the heart of the Cardinals order — righties Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — even though veteran Steve Cishek had been warming up in the Cubs bullpen.

Goldschmidt flied out to left field and Ozuna struck out, giving Wieck a huge boost of confidence and setting the Cubs on the path for a much-needed victory before the ninth-inning meltdown.

—Oh, that's where the offense was hiding...

Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson certainly helped out with back-to-back-to-back-to-back walks after Nicholas Castellanos' double in the first inning.

The team that scored only 1 run on 9 hits in Friday's ballgame then plated 3 runs on just 1 hit in the first inning of Saturday's contest.

Baseball, man.

The Cubs generally had a solid approach at the plate all day, drawing 6 walks and slugging 7 of their 10 hits for extra bases.

Rookie Nico Hoerner delivered a clutch go-ahead homer in the bottom of the sixth, his third longball of the homestand after hitting just 3 homers in 75 minor-league games this year.

—What bum ankle?

This weekend series hasn't gone the way the Cubs wanted, but Anthony Rizzo's shocking return to the field and subsequent play has been one of the consistent bright spots.

After a nasty-looking sprained ankle that was originally thought to keep him out for the rest of the regular season, Rizzo returned to the Cubs leadoff spot just 20 minutes before Thursday's game and he even provided a homer in that contest before the Cardinals pulled out a victory in the 10th inning.

In 11 plate appearances over those three games, Rizzo reached in six of them, including three hits Saturday. He even hustled out a double in the second inning, sliding into second on that injured ankle and trying to give his team a spark.

—Q's about Q

What is going on with Jose Quintana. He hasn't made it through 4 innings in any of his last three starts and has gone more than a month since pitching at least 6 innings (Aug. 18).

He's now given up 18 earned runs and 25 hits in 13.2 innings this month - good for an 11.85 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

Quintana was a rock for the Cubs in the rotation for the first five months of the season, but he's taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction at the absolute worst time. His struggles are even tougher to swallow when taken alongside Cole Hamels' last couple months of injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment, Quintana would be in line to start the first game in St. Louis next weekend, but the Cubs could always utilize the off-day to change up their rotation a bit.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates Saturday night and are 3 games up on the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Nationals update

The Nationals beat the Marlins and have a 4-game lead on the Cubs and are 1 game up on the Brewers for the top Wild-Card spot.

What's next?

The Cubs finish their 2019 regular season home slate Sunday afternoon, though some serious storms are projected to hit Chicago.

If they are able to play, will this be the final game at Wrigley Field in 2019? If they're not able to play, the Cardinals have a game Monday night while the Cubs are off, so the makeup would have to be pushed back to Sept. 30 if it still holds weight for the playoff race.

Yu Darvish takes the hill for the Cubs against Miles Mikolas. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago or the My Teams app, with pregame live beginning at 12:30 p.m.

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Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”

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Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”

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