Any momentum the Chicago Cubs built coming off a series win against the defending World Series champions quickly evaporated.
The Cubs lost for the 14th time in 18 games Thursday, falling to the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-7 in the finale of a four-game series.
A five-run rally in the eighth inning positioned the Cubs to earn a series split when pinch hitter Alfonso Rivas delivered a two-out, two-run single to give them a one-run lead. But the comeback attempt didn’t even last a pitch. Michael Chavis took right-hander David Robertson deep for a tying home run, and the Cubs ultimately lost on a walk-off bloop single in the 10th.
In a scary moment one pitch into the bottom of the first, Cubs trainers trekked to the bullpen because of an apparent medical issue. Cubs bullpen coach Chris Young became lightheaded during the inning, prompting a visit from trainers, including medical staff from the Pirates, and a six-minute delay in the game.
Young went to a hospital, was checked out and is going to be all right, manager David Ross said after the game. Ross appreciated the umpires’ and Pirates’ patience.
“Down in the bullpen you don’t know if it’s a player or a coach, kind of stopped everything — you see the worry on people’s faces,” Ross said. “There’s just a lot going on. The medical staff was on top of it.”
The Cubs (26-44) head to St. Louis with the fifth-worst record in baseball. Here are three thoughts on the state of the team.
1. Reliever Ethan Roberts needs season-ending Tommy John surgery.
The right-hander was one of the best stories coming out of spring training.
The 24-year-old rookie’s camp performance earned him a spot on a major-league roster for the first time in his career behind a nasty slider. Roberts landed on the injured list in late April with right shoulder inflammation but was working toward rejoining the Cubs when his season took an unfortunate turn. He departed his first rehab appearance with Triple-A Iowa on Sunday after throwing one pitch and signaled in pain for a trainer.
An evaluation revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Roberts needs season-ending Tommy John surgery. The procedure has not yet been scheduled.
“Even going back to the last calendar year, what he did to put himself on the map and the reason we put him on the 40-man in the offseason because we believe in him and what he can do, and I think he showed really good glimpses of that early in the year,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t get the opportunity to really show us what he can do over the course of the year. It doesn’t change anything. We believe in him.
“And no matter what happens the rest of this year, that moment in the dugout in spring training when we told him he made the team, it’s one of those things you’ll never forget.”
Hottovy said he didn’t have clarity as to whether Roberts’ injury occurred on the singular pitch or if something changed when possibly adjusting to the shoulder issue. Hottovy watched Roberts’ last live batting practice remotely and thought he looked great.
“Everything that we got from the reports was it just kind of was one of those things,” Hottovy said.
Roberts is the second young reliever the Cubs have lost to Tommy John surgery this year after trade-deadline acquisition Codi Heuer had the surgery in March. Although it’s an unexpected hurdle for Roberts, the Cubs clearly think highly of him, both as a pitcher and person, after seeing him in camp and nine appearances in April. He should have an opportunity to reestablish himself once he’s healthy.
“We have a lot of confidence in Ethan, and he’s got real big league stuff in there,” Ross said. “I know he’ll work hard to get back.”
2. Defensive issues are hurting the team.
The Cubs defense did not help their pitchers this week.
After a four-error game Thursday, the Cubs committed 10 over the four-game series. The miscues forced more pitches for the Cubs and gave the Pirates extra chances offensively. Entering Thursday, five players on the Cubs’ active roster had negative runs prevented, led by infielder Jonathan Villar’s minus-6. Villar, who committed a fielding error in the loss, also ranks last on the team with minus-8 Outs Above Average. That also ties him for second-worst in the majors.
The Cubs’ 43 errors through 70 games are ninth-most in the majors. Ross said the Cubs need to “lock things down” defensively.
“We’ve got to continue to go back to work,” Ross said.
For a Cubs team lacking stars, fundamentals must be executed. Too many times this season, particularly over their four games in Pittsburgh, the Cubs made careless plays in the field, ranging from not hitting the cutoff man and failing to feel the ball cleanly. And given how many one-run games they have played and been on the wrong side of, the defense can be a game-changer. In the Cubs’ case, it’s contributing to the loss column.
3. Justin Steele’s slider usage is notable.
Steele did not shy from attacking the zone against the Pirates on Thursday.
He finished with a 78% strike rate, largely relying on his slider to try to neutralize them. His slider accounted for 42% of his 100 pitches thrown in the loss, significantly higher than his 25.9% season average with the pitch. Steele got 10 whiffs on his slider, a pitch he was able to use in any situation against the Pirates.
Steele’s slider usage is an encouraging development, a sign he feels comfortable going to it often when it’s on while also generating some positive results.
“I felt like I was putting it for a strike whenever I wanted to, putting it in the dirt when I wanted to and backdooring it on the backside when I wanted to so when you have command of a pitch like that and you need a strike or you need something for chase, that’s what you go to,” Steele said.
Steele’s pitching line — six runs (five earned) and seven hits in 5⅔ innings with no walks and eight strikeouts — was not fully indicative of how well the left-hander pitched.
“He was as clean and efficient as I’ve seen him yet,” Ross said. “His stuff was playing well, hung a breaking ball 0-2 that cost him a homer. But for the most part, he played really well. We didn’t give him any breaks.”