After watching his offense sink to new depths for seven innings Tuesday night, Cubs manager Joe Maddon called for measures more drastic than pulling starter Jon Lester after six innings of four-hit ball and summoning Jason Heyward to pinch-hit with the bases loaded in the seventh.
Maddon inserted pinch-runner Terrance Gore after Anthony Rizzo singled with two outs in the eighth. That move paid off when Gore stole second base and Javier Baez came through with a game-tying double for the Cubs’ second run in 19 innings.
And after using three relievers, in the ninth Maddon summoned Pedro Strop, whose left hamstring was deemed healthy enough to pitch for the first time since Sept. 13; starter Cole Hamels then pitched two scoreless innings and Kyle Hendricks came in for the 13th.
But after retiring the first four batters he faced, Hendricks allowed three consecutive hits — topped by .170 hitter Tony Wolters’ RBI single — with two outs in the 13th that saddled the Cubs with a draining 2-1 loss in the National League wild-card game that eliminated them to end their puzzling season.
The loss ended a Cubs season that featured 95 victories but their inability to hold a five-game lead with four weeks left in the regular season forced them into a win-or-else scenario after losing to the Brewers 3-1 in Monday’s NL Central tiebreaker.
The eighth-inning comeback briefly alleviated the stress that had been mounting over an offense that struggled against left-hander Kyle Freeland, who showed no effects from pitching on only three days’ rest, while wasting Lester’s six innings of four-hit ball.
The Cubs led the NL with a .258 batting average without the services of slugger Kris Bryant for nearly eight weeks. But their lack of timely hitting contributed largely to losing the five-game lead they had as recently as Sept. 3.
The Cubs scored one or zero runs in 39 games during the regular season, and their frustrations continued when Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. led off the first two innings with singles but couldn’t advance.
Freeland received some help from center fielder Charlie Blackmon, who sprinted to the gap in right center to rob Contreras of an extra base hit that would have scored Almora.
After Almora’s hit, Freeland carved up the Cubs’ batters by jamming them with cut fastballs and altering the tempo of his windup on occasion.
Freeland jammed Bryant on a soft pop to second to end the third, and he did the same with Rizzo on a grounder to short to open the fourth.
The Cubs fell behind early for the third consecutive game, and the damage could have been worse had it not been for the sharpness of Lester after walking Blackmon and surrendering a double to DJ LeMahieu to start the game. The damage stopped after Nolan Arenado hit a sacrifice fly.
Lester proceeded to lean more on his curveball on the outside corner to strike out Trevor Story and Matt Holliday to end the first. Lester retired 17 of the next 19 batters after the double to LeMahieu until Story doubled to left-center.
But Lester rebounded quickly by striking out Holliday on his 86th and final pitch and responding with a yell and fist pump. Lester lowered his postseason ERA to 2.51 in 154 innings.
Here’s how the game unfolded:
Rockies take 1-0 lead in first
Cubs left-hander Jon Lester issued a leadoff walk to Charlie Blackmon, who advanced to third when D.J. LeMahieu’s hit got stuck in the ivy in left field for a ground-rule double. Blackmon then scored on Nolan Arenado’s sacrifice fly to center field for a 1-0 Rockies lead. But Lester struck out Trevor Story and Matt Holliday to strand LeMahieu on third base.
Almora makes big catch
Cubs center fielder Albert Almora leaped to catch David Dahl’s long fly ball at the wall to highlight Lester’s 1-2-3 second inning. Almora then singled to lead off the bottom of the second, but the Cubs didn’t get on the board, thanks in part to Charlie Blackmon’s running grab in center field to rob catcher Willson Contreras of a hit.
Lester strands Holliday
Matt Holliday knocked a Jon Lester curveball over the head of Cubs third baseman David Bote and into the left-field corner for a double with one out in the fourth. But Lester struck out Ian Desmond looking and got David Dahl to ground into an out at first base for another scoreless inning. Lester has six strikeouts through four innings.
Freeland retires 11 straight
Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland retired 11 straight batters from the second to the fifth innings to hang on to a 1-0 lead. He struck out Cubs third baseman David Bote with his 58th pitch of the game to end the fifth, his fifth strikeout of the day. Singles from Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora in the first and second innings, respectively, are the only Cubs hits. Freeland has not issued a walk.
Lester totals 9 Ks over 6 innings
Cubs starter Jon Lester gave up a two-out double to Trevor Story in the sixth inning, but Matt Holliday struck out swinging to end the frame. Lester and catcher Willson Contreras pumped their fists and screamed after Lester’s ninth strikeout, which ended his outing. Cubs manager Joe Maddon brought Ian Happ in to hit for Lester to open the bottom of the sixth.
Lester gave up one earned run on four hits with a walk and nine strikeouts. He threw 86 pitches.
Cubs waste freebie
After pinch-hitter Ian Happ walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth, Rockies right fielder David Dahl misplayed Kris Bryant’s fly ball into a hit. That gave the Cubs two on base with one out, but Anthony Rizzo hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the Cubs’ first real scoring threat of the night.
Cubs squander another opportunity
The Cubs’ best chance to score came in the bottom of the seventh, after Rockies starter Kyle Freeland left with one on base and two out.
Rockies shortstop Trevor Story made a diving grab of Daniel Murphy’s low liner for Freeland’s final out of the inning, and Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino entered in Freeland’s place. His first pitch was wild, allowing Almora to advance to second, and then he walked Willson Contreras. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella reached base on a catcher’s interference call on Drew Butera to load the bases, but pinch-hitter Jason Heyward struck out to waste yet another prime scoring opportunity.
Baez double ties it 1-1
Javier Baez drove in the Cubs’ first run with two out in the eighth inning when he cracked Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino’s slider into center field for a double. Anthony Rizzo singled to center field with two out, and pinch runner Terrance Gore stole second before scoring to tie the game at 1. Baez was 0-for-3 with a strikeout entering the eighth.
Strop pitches a scoreless ninth
Cubs reliever Pedro Strop returned from a left hamstring strain to strike out two Rockies batters in a scoreless ninth inning. Strop, who injured his hamstring Sept. 13, gave up a single to Trevor Story but struck out Ian Desmond looking to give the Cubs a chance at a walk-off win.
Game headed to extra innings
Rockies closer Wade Davis struck out two Cubs batters in a scoreless bottom of the ninth inning to send the game to extra innings tied at 1. Willson Contreras walked between strikeouts by Daniel Murphy and Kyle Schwarber, and Jason Heyward grounded out to end the inning.
Game knotted at 1-1 through 11
Cole Hamels pitched two scoreless innings of relief for the Cubs in the 10th and 11th. He loaded the bases on Nolan Arenado’s single, Gerardo Parra’s walk and Ian Desmond’s fielder’s choice. But David Dahl grounded out to end the threat.
Rockies reliever Seunghwan Oh walked Javier Baez to open the bottom of the 11th, and Baez advanced on Albert Almora’s sacrifice bunt. The Rockies intentionally walked Daniel Murphy to get to Willson Contreras. After fouling off a ball for a 1-2 count, Contreras stepped to the side with an apparent minor injury, but he stayed in to bat after talking with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the training staff. He reached on a force out at third, but Victor Caratini grounded out to first to end the inning.