PITTSBURGH – If this is what the playoffs are going to look like, the Cubs are going to need an awful lot of Jake Arrieta. And maybe some help.
“We’ve lost that game several times recently,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the Cubs survived Pirates ace Gerrit Cole only to lose 5-4 on a leadoff walk and mistakes in the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader Tuesday.
“We have to do a better job in the latter part of the game with the bullpen. The walks are killing us. It really comes down to that.”
A bullpen already showing cracks in recent weeks cost the Cubs another close one when struggling Justin Grimm walked Pedro Alvarez leading off the eighth inning. Pinch-runner Pedro Florimon stole second, took third on catcher Miguel Montero’s throwing error and scored on a sacrifice fly.
“I’ve just got to find my confidence and get my aggressiveness back,” said Grimm who has walked four in his last two appearances – getting tagged with losses in both. “I’ll be fine. It’s just tough one to swallow, knowing I’m better than that.”
By contrast, the Pirates’ late-inning tandem of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, a shutdown left-right combination, showed what playoff-caliber finishers look like – retiring the final six Cubs, including a pair of ninth-inning strikeouts for Melancon.
If you’re not sure how important late-inning relief is in the postseason, ask the Kansas City Royals, who rode their bullpen all the way to the World Series last year.
“It’s huge,” Maddon said.
The Cubs – who trailed Pittsburgh by four games for the top wild-card spot entering the game — were playing from behind almost from the beginning.
After manufacturing a run off Cole in the top of the first, Cubs starter Jason Hammel threw four straight balls to open the bottom half, hit the second batter and then gave up an RBI single to MVP contender Andrew McCutchen. By the end of the inning the Cubs trailed 3-1.
“It was pretty embarrassing that first inning,” Hammel said, “literally just battling myself the whole inning. To give up three runs that inning was actually a pretty good job because it was pretty embarrassing.”
Hammel, who regained a semblance of command in the second, couldn’t make it through the fourth. But it’s his first innings (5.46 ERA) that have bedeviled Hammel since the All-Star break (allowing runs in seven of 11 opening innings).
“Obviously, it pisses me off,” said Hammel, who was coming off a strong outing to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis. “It’s your job as a starter to set the tone there, and I haven’t done it in a while. I’ve got to figure it out.
“What I’m doing right now isn’t acceptable. So I’ve got to get to work. I’m running out of time.”
Asked if Hammel’s status in a playoff rotation was under review pending his last few starts, Maddon said the way he views his No. 3 starter hasn’t changed – though with little depth to the rotation he may have little choice.
“It’s fastball command. It’s always been that way with him,” Maddon said. “When he knows where his fastball’s going, he pitches really well.”
Besides, when it comes to Pittsburgh, in what’s expected to be a one-game, loser-out playoff game, Hammel isn’t in the equation.
That’ll be up to Cy Young contender Jake Arrieta to start.
And, maybe, a suddenly spotty bullpen to finish.
Grimm understands that as much as anyone in the clubhouse. After allowing 13 walks in his first 45 innings this season (with a 1.24 ERA), Grimm has allowed eight in his last 7 1/3 – with six earned runs plus six unearned runs allowed.
“I’m beating myself. The other teams aren’t beating me,” he said. “I was aggressive. As of lately, it’s just been too fine, and it’s leading to walks. Crucial walks. Not just walks. I’ve always walked people here and there. But these are crucial walks.
“It’s been a grind the last 10, 15 days, but I don’t forget the person that was aggressive and getting people out early on all year.
“Obviously, I’ve just got to find my confidence before we head into October. Right now I’m trying to finish out strong and worry about October in October.”
As for beating Cole when it counts, the Cubs seem confident they can do enough to compete there – despite eight strikeouts without a walk by Cole.
That included a combined 1-for-8 with five strikeouts from the Cubs’ three big rookies: Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.
“He threw some pitches that were hittable,” said leadoff man Dexter Fowler who singled and eventually scored the Cubs’ first run on a sacrifice fly. “He hit his spots when he needed to.
“But we’ll be all right. We’ll be fine.”