So what if the Cubs lost a third consecutive series?
Even with Wednesday’s 7-4 late-inning loss to the last-place Reds, the Cubs still had a fat lead for a wild-card berth with 30 games to play.
But what if the Cubs lost Kyle Schwarber when the rookie slugger injured a rib-cage muscle swinging in the batting cage before Wednesday’s game?
Considering his influence on a resurgent lineup since his recall at the All-Star break and the recent state of the Cubs’ pitching staff (beyond Jake Arrieta), no lead would look especially fat.
“There’s a lot of guys on this team, especially with September and calling up some people,” rookie teammate Kris Bryant said. “But Kyle’s certainly been a very crucial part of our success.”
Less than 24 hours after hitting a game-winning homer in the seventh Tuesday, Schwarber was scratched from the lineup, sent for an MRI, and after the game manager Joe Maddon said he didn’t expect an update on Schwarber until Friday.
“My biggest concern would be that he’s the third catcher,” said Maddon, referring to his September depth.
Schwarber also is one of the two most imposing left-handed hitters in the Cubs lineup (with Anthony Rizzo) and a key to lengthening the middle of the order. The Cubs are averaging a run more per game since he was called up from the minors July 17.
The fact that Austin [Jackson] did as well as he did [Wednesday] kind of aids that a little bit if in fact he’s not able to go for a couple, three days or whatever,” Maddon said. “We’ll just have wait and see how it plays out.”
Schwarber’s hitting .270 with 13 homers, 38 RBIs and a .917 OPS in 48 big-league games.
Jackson, who doubled and singled after replacing Schwarber, was the most significant of the Cubs’ August acquisitions, picked up in a trade from Seattle at Monday’s deadline for playoff roster eligibility.
Beyond that, the Cubs have bodies to mix and match, and they have the starting-pitching tandem of $155 million Jon Lester and Cy Young candidate Arrieta – who make the first two starts of the weekend series against Arizona.
On Wednesday against Reds rookie Raisel Iglesias – much better against right-handers in 14 starts – the Cubs’ only scoring for seven innings came on solo home runs by lefties Tommy La Stella and Rizzo.
Bryant, who’s carried his torrid August into the first two days of September, tied the game with a two-out, two-run homer against reliever J.J. Hoover in the eighth.
But after closer Hector Rondon got two quick outs in the top of the ninth of a tie game, Jason Bourgeois beat out an infield tapper, and Jay Bruce hit a sharp grounder that went through Bryant’s legs for an error. Three fastballs later, Joey Votto drove the game-winner out to left-center.
“It’s tough,” said Bryant, who’s on pace for 110 RBIs. “Obviously, you’re on cloud nine when you hit a game-tyig home run, and then you blow it the next inning. But sometimes baseball works that way. It’s a crazy game. It gives you everything, and then it takes everything away.”
Maddon supported the rookie to the point of describing how tough the angle off Bruce’s lefty swing makes that play.
“That’s not an excuse for letting it go through me,” Bryant said. “I’ve made that play plenty of times in my career. So I look forward to the next one like that.”
Veteran starter Jason Hammel, who’s looking for the high performance (2.86 ERA) that made him look like an All-Star before a July 8 leg injury, was pulled from the start after allowing back-to-back singles leading off the sixth.
It’s the third straight game Maddon needed four innings from his bullpen – the seventh time in nine games the rotation failed to get a quality start (Arrieta has the two).
It’s coincided with a stretch of six losses in eight games.
“I’m obviously very frustrated with the way things are going,” said Hammel, who was asked whether he felt he had to “reprove” himself. “But I’m not looking to try to prove myself at all, ever. I could care less about proving myself. I know what I can do.”