The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t providing the slump-busting opportunity the Chicago Cubs offense was looking for coming into the three-game series.
The Cardinals brought the National League’s worst record to Wrigley Field and secured a series victory with Tuesday’s 6-4 win over the Cubs (17-19), who have lost nine of 12.
Wasted chances with runners in scoring position, particularly in bases-loaded spots, remain a frustrating thread through the Cubs’ recent offensive woes. Despite totaling nine hits and drawing seven walks and a hit by pitch, the Cubs couldn’t come through with the timely hit. Although they’re happy to be generating baserunners, the margin for error is tested by a 1-for-7 performance with runners in scoring position.
“If there was a frustrating scale, like, giving ourselves chances and not scoring is probably better than not giving us those chances at all,” said Dansby Swanson, who tallied three extra-base hits in the loss. “But eventually things will turn in our favor and we’ve just got to keep grinding together, staying together as a unit and continue to put good at-bats together.”
Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s game.
1. Nico Hoerner and the Cubs are hopeful he can avoid the injured list.
Hoerner watched the ball rocket down the third-base line, ricochet off the wall and carom into left field with one thought on his mind.
As Hoerner went from first to third on Swanson’s double in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Cubs’ 3-1 loss Monday to the Cardinals, he felt a grabbing sensation in his left hamstring midway around second, forcing him to pull up into third. He immediately exited the game but received encouraging news Tuesday.
An MRI on Tuesday morning showed a mild strain. He remains day to day, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hoerner gets a second consecutive day off Wednesday before Thursday’s day off for the team ahead of a nine-game trip.
If his hamstring doesn’t respond as the Cubs hope by Thursday, they could put him on the injured list and backdate the stint to Tuesday.
“Obviously my legs are part of my game on both sides of the ball, and health there is important,” Hoerner said. “I wasn’t carrying any nagging issues going into that game. We’ve had a longer stretch of playing in a row and a longer game on Sunday, but I recovered well, feeling good.
“So I can’t control everything, unfortunately, in this game, and things are going to show up sometimes.”
The Cubs’ second base depth with Nick Madrigal and Christopher Morel lessens any pressure Hoerner feels for a quick return to the lineup. Madrigal batted leadoff in place of Hoerner and played third base Tuesday while Morel started at second.
Hoerner knew it was the right move to come out of the game and not try to play through it. He missed six weeks in 2021 because of a left hamstring strain.
“I don’t think anybody had serious red flags yesterday and was excited about that, but confirming that this morning was nice,” manager David Ross said Tuesday. “This is something that we feel like is not an IL thing, he can deal with and manage.”
Hoerner sounded more irritated that his hamstring issue cost him a chance to give the Cubs the lead on the sequence than at the ailment itself.
“I was frustrated not to score on the play — I was expecting to,” he said. “I felt a specific tightness between second and third that definitely made me realize I was not going to score on the play and pulled up into third.
“I’ve had injuries before and it did not feel like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m injured,’ type of thing. Obviously any discomfort that you feel on the field isn’t the best, but I’m really happy with how we’ve treated it so far and how I’m recovering.”
2. Christopher Morel provides a needed energy infusion.
Morel couldn’t contain the energy bubbling from within, emphatically yelling while rounding the bases.
The emotion, including a jump-skip into the air, served as the physical representation of the jolt Morel provided with his 422-foot, game-tying solo home run to center in the sixth. His first big-league homer of the year was a no-doubt laser that fired up Morel, a boost that a scuffling offense has been missing the last two weeks.
Morel should get the starts at second while Hoerner is sidelined. His value goes beyond defensive flexibility. Sometimes a team needs energy to physically manifest on the field, and who is better than Morel to provide that on this Cubs team right now?
Morel’s athleticism was on display, too, helping turn two double plays.
“He’s got some explosive twitchiness that I wish I had,” Swanson said. “I was telling somebody I wish I could play as loose as he does. It’s not really in my DNA, but it’s so fun to be able to watch him go out there and play, and to be able to come up and impact the game the way he did tonight was awesome.
“We’re looking forward to him continuing to do that.”
3. Javier Assad is thriving in a piggyback role.
Jameson Taillon is not where the Cubs need him to be with his pitch count or results in two starts since coming off the IL for a left groin strain.
Taillon couldn’t get through the third against the Cardinals, pulled after a bases-loaded, two-out walk brought home a run. Of the 69 pitches Taillon threw, 32 came in the third. Julian Merryweather cleaned up the inning but walked in a run, charged to Taillon.
“I mean, results-wise, I don’t love where I was obviously,” Taillon said. “But physically I do feel healthy and strong and I feel like all my pitch shapes and stuff are fine. So kind of a tale of two stories: physically good, results-wise obviously we’d like to change that.”
In his first start after missing 16 days, Taillon allowed three runs in three innings to the Washington Nationals. In both outings Taillon was burned by home runs. And both times right-hander Javier Assad saved the bullpen with an effective performance in the piggyback relief role.
Assad allowed two runs in 5⅓ innings Tuesday, holding the Cardinals scoreless for his first five innings. They finally got to him in the ninth when Paul DeJong led off with a homer and Dylan Carlson followed with a triple off the center-field wall. A bloop RBI double by Andrew Kinzer put the Cardinals up 6-4.
Assad’s solid performance came after he tossed five scoreless relief innings Thursday, limiting the Nationals to two hits and no walks. Until the ninth Tuesday, Assad held the Cardinals to one hit and two walks.
“I keep preparing the same way,” Assad said through an interpreter. “Obviously right now I had a little more rest because of going deeper into games. But I prepare the same way. I feel good and I’m preparing well. Mechanically I’m working more on that, I’m focusing on that and I’ve felt really good.”
He masterfully navigated the seventh after opening with a double and a walk. Assad induced a double play back to the mound by Paul Goldschmidt and forced Nolan Gorman to pop out to strand the runners.
“Javy was spectacular,” Ross said. “I mean, as clean as innings out there until the end that you could have. Mixed the pitches well — it’s a really good lineup — throwing strikes, pitch count was down. … That was huge.”
Assad struggled in a more traditional relief role at the start of the season, getting tagged for three runs in each of his first two appearances. Clearly there is some comfort to his current setup in following Taillon. While this is a short-term arrangement as Taillon builds up and gets back into form, it allows Assad to maintain a starter’s workload and remain a depth piece if more rotation issues arise.