What are the Cubs missing? More of what Miguel Amaya showed in his MLB debut

The Cubs lost 4-3 to the Nationals in the series finale Thursday. It was their fifth one-run loss on the 1-6 trip.

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Cubs catcher Miguel Amaya, shown during a spring training game, made his MLB debut on Thursday against the Nationals.

Cubs catcher Miguel Amaya, shown during a spring training game, made his MLB debut on Thursday against the Nationals.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

WASHINGTON — It was purely coincidence, but not long after news broke that the Cubs were planning to call up first-base prospect Matt Mervis, the offense started to rally Thursday.

It was too little too late. The Cubs fell to the Nationals 4-3 on Thursday on Alex Call’s ninth-inning home run for their fifth one-run loss on the 1-6 trip. Their record dipped below .500 as their fans’ frustrations peaked.

The Cubs were probably due for a lull. The offense got off to a torrid start, outperforming expectations. They can’t count on that kind of production, though, throughout the year. So if the Cubs are going to have a successful season, they’re going to have to win close games.

“I think things will break our way at some point, but definitely a tough road trip,” starter Jameson Taillon said. “Excited to get back in front of the fans at Wrigley and hopefully turn it around.”

Mervis certainly isn’t the answer to all of the Cubs’ problems. But he is a prospect the team has been high on for a while who could establish himself as part of its plans for years to come. Mervis is expected to join the Cubs in Chicago for their weekend series against the Marlins, a source confirmed.

“I found in my experiences that players kind of hit you over the head with it over time,” general manager Carter Hawkins said this week when asked about promotion decisions. “And you start having conversations, they get into the picture, and then you find yourself having a conversation every day. And at some point the answer becomes relatively obvious.”

Mervis’ success at the Triple-A level could immediately translate to the big leagues, or it could take him awhile to settle in. He could carve out a regular role for himself, or this could be a short stint.

Either way, this group of hitters seems to be pressing, and sometimes it just takes a little shake-up to turn things around.

In one of the biggest moments Thursday, catcher Miguel Amaya, in his long-awaited major-league debut, stepped up to the plate with two runners in scoring position as the Cubs trailed by a run.

“That pitcher was throwing a lot of fastballs hard inside,” Amaya said of Nationals reliever Hunter Harvey. “I put in my mind: Just make contact, let the barrel go to the baseball and let it happen.”

He was experiencing the size of the ballpark, the pitchers, the pressure of a big-league game all for the first time. His parents, who had traveled from Panama to see his debut, sat behind the dugout.

He worked a full count, patiently waiting for his pitch. And when he got it, he didn’t miss.

Amaya turned on a fastball and drove it into the left-field corner — as manager David Ross put it, “almost hit a three-run homer there” — for a game-tying sacrifice fly to the warning track.

“It was fun,” Taillon said of working with Amaya. “He’s a stud. I like him a lot. He’s super professional. I can tell that he really wants to be really good, cares about his pitchers.”

Taillon got the start after returning from the 15-day injured list (strained left groin), and the night before, Amaya had a conversation with him about the Nationals’ lineup.

Besides one blip in the second inning, resulting in a three-run home run — “I felt like it was just one bad pitch that I’m kicking myself over,” Taillon said — they effectively attacked the Nationals’ hitters.

The plan was always for right-hander Javier Assad, who was recalled Wednesday, to bridge the gap between Taillon, as he builds up his workload, and the rest of the bullpen. Taillon got through three innings, retiring six straight after that homer. He left the game healthy and turned the ball over to Assad.

“Probably gave a lot of confidence because we played [together] a lot in the minors,” Amaya said. “And he trusts me, I trust him. Just have fun and throw to his friend.”

Assad said he has been tweaking his mechanics, focusing on staying in line with his front side, to improve his command. In an efficient outing, he needed just 50 pitches to get through five scoreless innings.

But then, in a script that has become all too familiar, things fell apart for the Cubs in the end.

Reliever Brad Boxberger replaced Assad in the ninth inning, and, with his first pitch, gave up a walk-off home run.

“Definitely [a] tough loss,” Ross said. “But this group’s shown they don’t quit.”

The Cubs return to Wrigley Field with the anticipation of another major-league debut brewing.

Maybe this weekend Mervis will have a moment like Amaya did. Maybe he won’t. Either way, he’ll bring something different.

Right now, the Cubs are in need of something different.

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