The ability to avoid losing streaks fueled the Chicago Cubs in their surge from a sub-.500 team to a postseason contender.
They hadn’t lost more than two straight games since the start of July, when they dropped three in a row.
But their 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday before 40,391 at Wrigley Field ended that two-month stretch of consistency, and the third straight loss to their closest wild-card pursuer left them a game ahead of the Diamondbacks for the second spot.
“We went through obviously some struggles and challenges early in the year, but this is a resilient bunch,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “We’ve proven time and time again we will bounce back. These games have been competitive. It’s not like we’re laying down.
“I felt like we’ve put a lot of effort in. It just hasn’t happened for us. We’ve got so many great players at some point it will (even out). Sometimes you’ve got to get the bad luck out to get the good luck in. That may be tomorrow.”
The Cubs stood four games behind the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, who beat the New York Yankees on Saturday, while the Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds were on the Diamondbacks’ heels for the third wild-card spot.
“As a hole, I didn’t feel like we were just going to roll to the end of the season without any bumps in the road, right?” manager David Ross said. “I don’t think we’re playing bad baseball. We’re just not getting the key hit when we need it. That comes and go sometimes, especially when you’re facing good pitching.”
The Cubs went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position against Merrill Kelly and four relievers, stranding 10 baserunners. Ryan Thompson got Yan Gomes to fly out to end the sixth with the bases loaded, and Gomes was thrown out at second in the ninth on a ball perfectly played off the wall by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who also made a leaping catch off Ian Happ in the 10th.
In their three losses to the Diamondbacks, the Cubs have scored four runs in 28 innings, wasting dominant outings the last two days from starters Jameson Taillon and Justin Steele.
A wild pitch on a slider from rookie Daniel Palencia brought home the go-ahead run in the 10th Saturday, and the Diamondbacks added a run on an RBI single from Tommy Pham. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 10th on Cody Bellinger’s RBI single, but Swanson fouled out on a popup to the catcher to end it.
Kyle Hendricks faces Brandon Pfaadt in Sunday’s finale before the Cubs begin a big six-day trip to Colorado and Arizona.
Steele threw another gem to stay in contention for the National League Cy Young Award, allowing one run on six hits over seven innings, with six strikeouts and no walks. But the Cubs offense mustered only one run behind him, a third inning infield popup by Bellinger that was lost in the sun, allowing Nico Hoerner to scamper around from first to make it 1-0.
Steele retired the final nine hitters he faced but was removed in a 1-1 tie after throwing 95 pitches. Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay threw scoreless innings before Ross called on Palencia over Mark Leiter Jr. or Brad Boxberger, a former closer. Ross said before the game Boxberger would not be used in high-leverage situations after returning from a long stint on the IL.
Palencia came in with eight straight scoreless appearances, but his inexperience might have been a factor.
“These moments are good for young guys,” said Ross, who added Palencia needed to “lock in” in a big moment.
“Sometimes going through that and some struggles makes you better on the other side.”
But this isn’t the time of year for learning lessons. José Cuas, in his second season, was tagged with the loss Friday after putting the first two men on in the eighth inning.
The Cubs bullpen has been one of the reasons for the magical run since late June, but pitching in a pennant race is not something they’re accustomed to. When every pitch matters in a tight game, experience matters.
Dealing with the changing conditions of Wrigley also is new to some Cubs. Much of their offensive struggles early in the season could be traced to an inability to score on days with the wind blowing in.
In Chicago, the weather can change on a dime. They’re 20-20 with the wind blowing in and 14-8 with it blowing out.
“One day you look at the San Fran series, and it felt like everything was blowing out,” Swanson said. “Then the next series everything is blowing across. It really challenges an offense just to be well-rounded. We’ll find a way to put some things together.”
A roller-coaster season in April, May and June has been on an upward trek since July. Now would be an inopportune time to slide backward.
But that’s the challenge the Cubs face. The players know what lies ahead, as does Ross.
There are no excuses if they don’t make it to October.