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The contrast between the lineups couldn't have been starker. And it was especially on display from the sixth inning into the seventh as another critical game got away from the Cubs on Sunday afternoon. They were able to rally in the eighth and take it into extras but eventually choked it away in the 11th.
The victory gave the scorching Nationals their first sweep of a series at Wrigley Field since 2005, and left the Cubs 2 1/2 games in back of a Cardinals team that, it must always be remembered, to the ever-lasting embarrassment of Theo et al., has never tanked. The Cubs tanked for three stinking years, and while it led to a World Series title, it was supposed to lead to more than scratching and clawing for a second wild-card spot for the second year in a row.
The top half of the Nationals' order is filled with young (and a couple veteran), athletic hitters with speed and power and well above average on-base numbers. Trea Turner, Vic Robles and Juan Soto gave a clinic all weekend long on how to drive balls into gaps in one at-bat and then eke out a two-strike infield hit (or coax a walk!) the next. Oh, and Adam Eaton (still oh so speedy after all these years) and MVP candidate Anthony Rendon also chipped in plenty.
In the bottom of the sixth Sunday, Kris Bryant came up with a clutch single to tie the game at two. The Cubs were facing a tiring starting pitcher, Steve Strasburg (finished with a season-high 113 pitches) and had the heart of the order coming up with no outs. Unfortunately, on this day that heart consisted of the ice-cold Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and catcher Jonathan Lucroy. (Anthony Rizzo was out with back soreness.)
Javy started his at-bat by swinging at a pitch that was a foot outside, and eventually struck out on a ball in the dirt. Schwarber worked the count to 2-0 but, as he has done all season long, neither finished off a walk nor hit the ball with authority in the clutch; he popped out to left. Yes, Schwarber later hit a game-tying two-run homer, giving him 30 dingers on the year. But he entered this week with a .225 batting average and a .318 on-base percentage, despite having faced right-handed pitchers in the vast majority of his at-bats. He is the most disappointing player on the roster.
Lucroy struck out swinging on a pitch that was a foot-and-a-half outside. Threat eliminated in large part because these three Cubs couldn't even come close to putting the ball in play in a way that put pressure on the defense.
In the bottom of the seventh, Eaton pinch-hit for Strasburg and drew a one-out walk. Turner, who would later provide the centerpiece of the game-winning 11th inning rally with a ringing double to right-center, flew out for once. But then Robles singled to right, sending Eaton to third, and Rendon walked. Rowan Wick was replaced by lefty Kyle Ryan on the mound to create a lefty versus lefty match-up.
Up came Soto, who quickly fell behind in the count, in part because the home plate ump called a pitch that was clearly inside strike two. Soto was ticked but he didn't let it impact the at-bat, and a couple of balls and a couple of foul balls later, he muscled an inside fastball into the short-third gap. Baez fielded it and fired to first but he couldn't get the speedy Soto as the lead run scored.
And then to cap it all off, Asdrubel Cabrera lined a two-run single to right-center against Ryan, who had not been able to shake off Soto's hit and fired a fastball right down the middle for the veteran infielder.
The Nationals are a very good team right now, let's not overlook that. They have led in the eighth inning of their last 19 games, winning 15 of them, and they are now four games in front of the Cubs for the first wild card spot. But the home team didn't face two of their aces - Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin - and still couldn't manage to ever even take a lead in the series.
Soto, Turner and Robles have arrived in the majors in the last three years and given the Nationals a huge boost of hitting done the right way. No one has done anything close to that for the Cubs. Oh, and management has failed to draft and develop any pitchers of note other than that guy (Dylan Cease) they traded to the White Sox, in approximately forever.
Maybe just maybe it is time to take a slightly more critical look at Senior Vice President, Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod, and his bosses Theo and Jed? They have, after all, overseen the Cubs' last eight drafts.
The contrast between the Cubs' drafting (and amateur free-agent signings) and the Nationals' couldn't be starker.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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