Cubs closer questions resurface in 5-4 loss to Giants

The Cubs have a 14-18 record in one-run games.

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San Francisco Giant players mob first baseman Wilmer Flores at Oracle Park in San Francisco

San Francisco Giant players mob first baseman Wilmer Flores, who walked in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth as the Giants defeated the Chicago Cubs at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Monday.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/AP

SAN FRANCISCO — The Cubs trudged off the field as the Giants mobbed Wilmer Flores, who had just drawn a bases-loaded walk to win the game Monday. When the Cubs fell to the Giants 5-4, questions about a closer resurfaced.

“They hit some balls in some good places in the ninth, and then the walks hurt us, frankly,” manager Craig Counsell said after the Cubs’ 18th one-run loss of the year. “They obviously hurt us bad. The ninth inning did not go well.”

It was a movie the Cubs had seen before. They got a strong outing from their starting pitcher, failed to capitalize on opportunities to run up the score and then their bullpen blew the save opportunity.

The Cubs got another strong start Tuesday from Kyle Hendricks, who gave up two runs in seven innings. But the offense was feeble in a 5-1 loss.

Counsell would prefer to get back to relying on a regular closer. That kind of predictability makes things easier on every reliever. But over the last week or so, he has gone to a closer-by-committee approach.

Veteran right-hander Hector Neris seems to have gone from Counsell’s first choice in save opportunities to one of several options. Counsell said Neris was available Monday, but he used right-hander Colten Brewer and lefty Drew Smyly in the ninth.

“I think we’re all just trying to figure it out, patch it together,” Smyly said.

To understand what that means, look at Counsell’s thought process in the ninth inning.

The Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth with a two-run lead. The Giants had rolled out an entirely right-handed hitting lineup against lefty starter Justin Steele, who allowed two runs in 7⅓ innings. So, against the Giants’ No. 5-7 hitters in the ninth inning, Counsell called on Brewer.

He gave up a leadoff double to Matt Chapman on a blooper that landed just out of the reach of diving center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong. Then, Thairo Estrada put down a bunt single, and pinch-hitting Michael Conforto hit a sacrifice fly to cut the Cubs’ lead to one.

Anticipating Giants manager Bob Melvin’s possible moves, Counsell knew switch-hitting Patrick Bailey was in the mix to pinch hit.

“Preferred him hitting right-handed,” Counsell said.

That meant putting in a left-handed reliever. And Counsell said he liked the matchup between Smyly and the next man up, Nick Ahmed. If Counsell left in Brewer, he expected left-handed hitter Brett Wisely to pinch-hit for Ahmed.

Smyly induced Bailey to hit a ground ball, but it got through the infield up the middle. Then he walked Ahmed to load the bases. After a sacrifice fly, intentional walk and unintentional walk later, the Cubs left the field with a 37-42 record.

“Tough loss,” Smyly said after the game. “I wish I would have been more over the plate. They all felt really close, but they did a good job not chasing, staying in their approach.”

Smyly, who has been a starter for most of his career, and Brewer, who signed a non-roster invitee deal with the Cubs this winter, weren’t brought on to be shutdown closers. But between injuries and performance, the current bullpen construction is forcing multiple relievers into uncomfortable spots.

Entering Tuesday, Cubs relievers had combined for 17 blown saves, the second-most in the majors, behind only the White Sox (21).

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