Justin Steele has often single-handedly kept the Chicago Cubs in games over the last six months.
That has especially been true lately. Five of his previous six starts featured games decided by two runs or fewer, all of which the Cubs won with Steele on the mound. So when the Arizona Diamondbacks tagged Steele for a pair of three-run home runs in the first and sixth innings to bookend his start Friday, the Cubs needed the offense to step up and help him out.
Instead, the offense managed just five base runners through the first eight innings — four singles and a walk — and failed to have a runner advance past first base. Although the Cubs showed life in the ninth behind home runs by Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki and Christopher Morel, the Diamondbacks closed it out to hand them a 6-4 loss.
The Diamondbacks clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker in the process against the Cubs, who have lost five of six games to Arizona within the last week. The Cubs (78-70) sit 1 1/2 games ahead of the Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds, currently tied for the final wild-card spot.
The Cubs only hold a tiebreaker advantage against the San Francisco Giants. A tied record with the Diamonbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds or Miami Marlins after the 162-game schedule is completed would set up the Cubs to be sitting at home in October. The Cubs need to stay a game ahead of most of their pursuers, making Saturday night’s matchup with the Diamondbacks particularly important. A victory would ensure they return to Chicago still ahead of Arizona.
The Cubs hope the fight the offense showed in the ninth carries over.
“There’s going to be days like that,” Happ said of the lineup’s struggles. “But the team’s pretty professional and come out tomorrow and swing the bats.”
Both of the Diamondbacks’ home runs came with two outs. In the first inning, Steele’s four-pitch walk of Christian Walker put runners on the corners. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. did not miss Steele’s next pitch, a slider in the bottom third of the zone to try and get a first-pitch strike. Steele efficiently rolled through the next four innings. He thought he had good stuff all night and felt Thursday’s off day gave his arm a little extra oomph, touching 95 mph during the outing.
The two mistakes to Gurriel and Alek Thomas, who crushed a first-pitch slider left down the middle in the sixth, were the difference.
With only 15 games remaining, pressure on the Cubs will only mount if they lose Saturday.
“We all believe in one another,” Steele said. “We’re showing up each and every single day, putting our hats on and trying to win the ballgame that day. It’s what we’ve been doing all year and because of that, we find ourselves in a good situation. So we’ve just got to keep showing up and playing ball.”