CHICAGO – In a season where the Phillies finally vanquished the demon that was the Miami Marlins, they now appear to be faced with a new nemesis.
The Chicago Cubs have become a real problem.
The Phillies lost for the fourth time this season in as many games against the Cubs on Tuesday night.
The Cubs pushed across the go-ahead run against reliever Connor Brogdon with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat the Phils, 2-1, at chilly Wrigley Field.
Ian Happ scored the tie-breaking run on a double by Yan Gomes. Happ had led off the frame with a ground-ball base hit through a Phillies’ infield shift.
“That’s frustrating at times but that’s the way it is,” manager Rob Thomson said. “We’ve got so many outs in the shift that sometimes you give them up.”
The loss was the Phillies’ third in a row as they began a crucial 10-game, season-ending road trip that will determine whether they make the postseason or not.
Despite the loss, the Phillies gained some ground in the playoff chase because Milwaukee also lost Tuesday night. The Phils lead the Brewers for the final NL wild-card spot by 1 ½ games with nine to play. The Phillies’ magic number for gaining entry to the postseason for the first time since 2011 is seven.
The Phils also hold a tiebreaker over the Brewers.
But no one in the Phillies’ clubhouse wants to slide in the back door. They want to enter the postseason through the front door, winning ball games.
They will need pitching performances like the one they got from Zack Wheeler on Tuesday night to do that.
But they will also need more than five hits. Truth be told, a shift didn't cost them this game. A lack of offense did.
“Flush this one tonight, but we have to get going,” Bryce Harper said. “We can’t keep saying that, right? We have to actually do it. As a team, as a club, we’ve got to be better. We all know that in here and hopefully (Wednesday) night we can go out there and be a lot better.
“Wheeler is our guy. Every time he goes out there, we have a chance to win just like tonight. It’s a bummer when we can’t capitalize for him. We need to be better for every guy that’s on the mound for us and when you have a chance to win a game like that, we have to be better.”
Harper had two of the Phillies’ five hits. He drove in the Phillies’ only run with a two-out double against Marcus Stroman in the sixth. Stroman pitched seven innings of four-hit ball. He’s beaten the Phillies twice this season and allowed just two runs in 13 innings. The Cubs, 68-86 and playing out the string, swept three games from the Phils at Citizens Bank Park in July.
In his second start since coming off the injured list, Wheeler pitched six innings of one-run ball and left with the score tied at 1-1. The only run he allowed came on a solo homer by Christopher Morel in the third inning. Morel hit a slider down in the zone. Wheeler called it a mistake.
“Even though it was down, it kind of backed up on me into his bat path,” Wheeler said. “He put a good swing on it and the wind was going that way. I wish I could have that one back.”
Wheeler’s economy of pitches was excellent. He threw just 62, only four more than he threw in his previous start and well short of the 75 that Thomson was targeting.
Wheeler lost some command in the sixth inning. He issued his only walk with one out then gave up a single off the right-field wall to Esteban Quiroz, putting runners on the corners. Someone quicker than Quiroz might have stretched it into a double. With the double play still in order, Wheeler got a big one with Willson Contreras at the plate to end the inning and keep the score tied at 1-1.
After Wheeler's loss of command, Thomson went to Brogdon in the bottom of the seventh inning and the right-hander was quickly burned by an infield shift as he gave up a leadoff hit to Happ on a ground ball through the shortstop hole.
Happ moved to second on a one-out ground ball and scored the go-ahead run on a two-out double to right by Gomes.
In two starts since coming off the IL, Wheeler has allowed just one run in 10 innings. He’s walked just one and struck out eight. He topped out on the gun at 97 mph Tuesday night.
“I’m ecstatic where he is,” Thomson said. “I think that time off did him some good and hopefully will do us all some good as we get down the road here.”
Wheeler would like to have stayed in the game for the seventh but didn’t disagree with Thomson’s decision to remove him after the sixth.
“It was one of those innings that got away from me feel-wise,” he said.
Despite throwing just 62 pitches, Wheeler believes he can get close to 90 in his next start. He believes that will put him on a good path entering the postseason opener – should the Phils get there.
“We’re confident,” he said. “We still are. We should have probably won tonight, but it is what it is. Come back tomorrow and win tomorrow’s game. Finish out this series strong and go to Washington and hopefully win a few games there. As long as we can keep winning series, I think we’ll be in a good spot as far as the ultimate goal.”
The need to win series puts the pressure on Aaron Nola. He will start Wednesday night’s game against Cubs’ right-hander Hayden Wesneski. The Phils need to win the game to have a chance to win the series.