Chicago Cubs fade in NL Central with third straight loss
MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs still have a pulse. But they're going to have a tough time making the postseason without their heartbeat.
The Cubs faded further back in the National League Central race Sunday, losing 8-5 to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. The loss was the Cubs' third in a row to the Brewers, and it dropped them 4½ games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.
The Cubs still hold the second wild-card spot, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are only 1½ behind in that race, and the Brewers got back to within 2 of the Cubs.
Down the stretch, it will be tough for the Cubs without their heart-and-soul shortstop Javier Baez, who may miss the rest of the regular season with a hairline fracture of his left thumb.
Things got even worse at that position Sunday, when Baez's replacement, Addison Russell, left the game in the third inning after being hit on the helmet with a pitch from Brewers starting pitcher Adrian Houser.
Russell initially stayed in the game, even stealing second base on the next pitch, but he did not return for the bottom of the inning. The Cubs say he suffered a nasal contusion and was being evaluated for a possible concussion.
But Baez's enthusiasm and energy are two things the Cubs will miss, and they looked lackluster Sunday.
Who steps up?
"He provides a different level of enthusiasm for us, different things he can do, whether it's a great tag, his baserunning acumen, all that stuff," said manager Joe Maddon, whose team fell to 76-66. "And then of course, at the plate. Of course, we miss it. There's no question we miss that.
"But again, I can always go back to my minor-league training, and that's where I'm at right now. Whenever you're faced with these kind of moments, somehow you piece it together and you believe you're going to win."
The Cubs needed a big performance from Sunday's starting pitcher, Jon Lester, but they didn't get it. Lester (12-10) made it through 5⅓ innings, but he gave up 7 hits and 8 runs.
The Cubs erased a 1-0 deficit with 3 runs in the third. But Milwaukee put across 5 in the fourth, 3 coming on a pinch homer by Tyler Austin. Lester exited in the sixth, when the Brewers scored twice more.
"Obviously very frustrated," said Lester, whose ERA jumped from 4.19 to 4.51. "Got a lead after a terrible first and proceeded to give it right back."
The Cubs have four winnable games at San Diego starting Monday night, but with how poorly they've played on the road this season (29-42), there are no guarantees.
"Just play," Lester said. "All you can do is show up and play. Hopefully I can pitch better. That's all you can do. You can't sit here and mope about this one. We've got to go out to San Diego and play a good series there.
"I think other teams have played better than us. I saw something the other day, they have the best record since the all-star break. They've flat-out played better than us. These guys (the Brewers) seem to play us extremely difficult. Now you've got the Diamondbacks making a run. Obviously the Phillies are right there.
"That's the exciting part about having two wild-card spots. Now you've got four or five teams involved as opposed to just one. We've got to buckle down and play better."
Maddon is likely managing for his job over the next three weeks, even though the front office is just as culpable for the state of the team. Maddon's teams generally have played well down the stretch, and one of his strengths is "staying in the moment," as he puts it.
"That's the only way to do it," he said. "You've got to throw the game, this whole thing, away, and you've got to move forward to San Diego. Long plane ride. Changing time zones. We've got to come out tomorrow ready to go. Regardless of having people injured or not, it doesn't matter. We've got to go out and play.
"Honestly, there's only one way to deal with moments like this, and that is in the moment. Anxiety lives in the future. You've got to stay right here right now.
"Things could change just as quickly. We could win the first three games in San Diego easily, and other teams could lose. You've just got to take care of yourself on a nightly basis. I don't see any panic in the eye."