For a few moments, everyone in a Chicago Cubs uniform on the field and in the dugout at Chase Field was frozen as they took in the scene.
Yan Gomes’ diving, sweeping tag across home plate on right fielder Seiya Suzuki’s throw just missed Evan Longoria’s fingertips as he slid headfirst, sparking a wild celebration by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cubs looked on in disbelief, a brief replay review upholding the call to punctuate a crushing 7-6 loss in 13 innings Saturday night.
The Cubs had three chances in extra innings to close out a win but allowed the tying run to score in the 10th and 11th before back-to-back two-out singles in the 13th off Hayden Wesneski gave the Diamondbacks the walk-off win. It represented the first time in franchise history the Cubs have scored three runs in extra innings and lost, according to team historian Ed Hartig.
“It takes a short memory and the ability to come out here (Sunday) and put everything in the past and be ready to win a ballgame,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said.
The gut-punch loss had all the makings of a season-altering defeat. Near heroics, bad luck, offensive shortcomings, overturned calls on replay reviews and a depleted bullpen that kept giving the Cubs (78-71) a chance to pull out the victory.
The Cubs, losers of four consecutive games and seven of nine, were left with plenty of what-ifs and must win Sunday night’s game to stay in front of the Diamondbacks. They enter the series finale (6:10 p.m., ESPN) a half-game ahead of the Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds for the second of three National League wild-card spots.
After the loss, Cubs had a 59.7% chance of making the postseason, via FanGraphs — still better odds than the teams in the hunt behind them: the Diamondbacks (46.4%), Reds (43.9%), Miami Marlins (40.3%) and San Francisco Giants (10.5%). After the Cubs swept the Giants on Sept. 6, they had an 89.8% probability of getting into the playoffs with the Diamondbacks the next closest at 40.1%.
The Cubs are making their path to October baseball much more difficult.
“This team has been really resilient all year,” manager David Ross said. “We’ve had some tough losses and walk-offs we’ve handled before. We’ve got to do a lot of little things better, but they continue to fight. A long, hard-fought game back and forth there at the end and couldn’t finish it today.”
Saturday’s drama will test the Cubs’ resiliency. They used all but eight players on their 28-man roster, and the bullpen again was called on to shoulder a heavy load. Right-handers José Cuas, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather combined for 3⅔ shutout innings in relief of Kyle Hendricks, who allowed three runs in 5⅓ innings.
“That was a back-and-forth game, like an instant classic type of thing, just a really well-fought game on both sides,” Leiter said. “Unfortunately, we came up on the losing end, but the important thing is we still control our own destiny. So it’s just a matter of playing good baseball, not riding the waves too much of the day to day.”
Marcus Stroman pitched on back-to-back days for the first time in the majors when he entered in the 10th for the save opportunity, the second of his career. (He recorded a four-inning save in 2014 as a rookie with the Toronto Blue Jays.) Corbin Carroll sliced Stroman’s well-placed 0-2 pitch down and away into left field to tie the game — the beginning of the extra-innings battle.
A nifty double play featuring Swanson’s gloved ball toss to Nico Hoerner for a barehanded throw to first ended the 11th. Ross stuck with Drew Smyly with the score tied, the bases loaded and one out in the 12th, and the veteran lefty delivered. He struck out Ketel Marte and forced Tommy Pham to ground out weakly, then came back out in the 13th for his third inning of work to face one batter.
Wesneski was a strike away from securing a huge win. After a five-pitch, one-out walk to Longoria put runners on the corners, Jordan Lawler popped out and Wesneski got ahead of Emmanuel Rivera.
Rivera turned on a sweeper away and hit Wesneski’s right elbow with a liner. The ball popped in the airs toward Swanson, who instead of snagging it off the ricochet for the final out, tried to barehand the ball off the ground on a one-hopper to throw out Rivera at first. Swanson couldn’t get a clean grab and never got a throw off.
Gabriel Moreno followed with an opposite-field single on Wesneski’s 0-2 pitch to bring home the winning run.
“In hindsight, if I could have come in and tried to dive and caught it, that probably would’ve been the best move,” Swanson said of Rivera’s hit. “I was setting up to try and catch and throw to first base, but obviously, in hindsight, would have tried to dive and catch it in the air.”
The Cubs haven’t caught many breaks lately, and those moments added up again Saturday:
The Cubs haven’t been playing enough all-around clean games lately, and with such a thin margin for error, it makes them susceptible to randomness and fluky moments. They couldn’t find a way to get the last out Saturday, which might haunt them into the offseason if they don’t turn things around quickly.
That would require the offense to come through. The Cubs’ failings come back to what has too frequently been inconsistent and unreliable production. Over their last nine games dating to Sept. 7, their 31 runs are tied for the third-fewest in the majors during that span.
Those struggles have been especially notable in the biggest moments. The Cubs rank 26th in FanGraphs’ clutch metric, which measures how much better or worse a player hits in high-leverage situations compared with a context-neutral environment. Cubs hitters also have the second-worst win probability added (WPA) and are 28th in context-neutral wins (WPA/leverage Index) in the last 10 days.
The Cubs need their largely veteran lineup to step up and take pressure off a pitching staff that has carried the team too often this season.
“The hardest part is everybody wants to come through in the big spot and get the big hits and help the team get some breathing room and be able to not have to use your guys in the back end (of the bullpen),” Ian Happ said Saturday. “We hit some balls hard with the bases loaded in Colorado. It didn’t work out, but you just have to keep having your at-bats and know that we’re going to go on a stretch where we score a bunch of runs.
”We’ve shown our ability to do that. We haven’t done it in a minute, but we’re completely capable of it. It’s just a matter of time.”
Time is quickly becoming the Cubs’ enemy. They have 13 games left to turn their postseason aspirations into reality.
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