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Head-scratching finish hangs tough loss on Cubs in tight division race

Reds pinch-hitter Jose Peraza delivers the two-run, two-out, game-turning double in the eighth inning. He was 0-for-4 as a pinch hitter this season before that.

CINCINNATI — With September looming for the Cubs on the calendar almost as closely as the Brewers loom in the standings, losses like this one against the last-place Reds sting now — and can bite later.

Four outs from a one-run victory with nobody on base in the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs instead suffered a 4-2 loss Thursday night at Great American Ball Park after the Reds staged a two-out rally against reliever Pedro Strop and a second-best defensive alignment in the outfield.

Instead of a sweep of the Reds halfway through a two-city road trip, the Cubs had their five-game winning streak snapped with a loss that cost them a chance to take a four-game division lead into Philadelphia.

A loss that could become even bigger if the race stays tight in the final month?

“That’s easy to say, yes. But we’re the team in first place,” said right-hander Jake Arrieta, who was in line for the victory after allowing one unearned run in 5⅔ innings. “We’re up, what, three games?

“Even though it was a tough loss, we’re going into Philly still feeling pretty good about where we’re at.”

After a single, double and intentional walk, slumping Reds infielder Jose Peraza delivered the game-winner, lofting a high fly to deep left-center — against a shallow-right shift — that went for a ground-rule double when center fielder Ian Happ missed making a long-running catch by “centimeters,” he said.

Manager Joe Maddon said the reason his best center fielder, Albert Almora Jr., wasn’t on the field for late-inning run prevention was because of the “one-run lead.”

<em>Happ said he came within “centimeters” of what would have been a game-saving catch.</em>
Happ said he came within “centimeters” of what would have been a game-saving catch.

“If they were to tie it, I wanted the lefties up against [closer Raisel] Iglesias [in the ninth],” he said. “Although [Almora] wouldn’t have caught that ball, either.

“When you have a one-run lead, it’s different than having a two- or three-run lead with that kind of a closer in Iglesias.”

Any chance the Cubs had of their own rally in the ninth was quelled quickly when Jon Jay followed his one-out pinch single by inexplicably deciding the Reds wouldn’t throw because they weren’t holding him on and getting thrown out trying to steal, trailing by two.

Third shift

Happ, who said he hasn’t played third base at any level, took grounders at the position before the game.

“I just wanted to make sure that if we have a moment like we did the other night that he’s somewhat familiar,” Maddon said.

When third baseman Kris Bryant was forced to leave the game Tuesday after being hit on the hand by a pitch in the ninth, Maddon shoe-horned Anthony Rizzo into the left-side defense to cover the bottom of the inning.

Happ has played second base and all three outfield spots this season.

Grimm tale

Reliever Justin Grimm, who went on the disabled list last week because of an infection in his right index finger, threw a bullpen session Wednesday and is scheduled for one more Saturday.

Barring a setback, his next step would be a brief minor-league rehab assignment before returning from the DL when rosters expand Sept. 1.

Notes: Happ’s second-inning home run Thursday was No. 19 this season for the rookie who debuted May 13. One more for Happ and the Cubs will set a franchise record with six 20-homer players (also Rizzo, Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez). … The Cubs’ inconsistent hitting this year is nothing that can’t be solved by a few more games against the Reds. With their 9-3 victory in Cincinnati Wednesday night, the Cubs had scored nine or more in seven of 15 games against the Reds this year – compared to 10 of 110 other games this year.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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