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A slugfest broke out Sunday afternoon at Great American Ball Park.
As each offense one-upped the other, the Chicago Cubs pitching staff couldn’t shut down the Cincinnati Reds in a 13-12 loss in 10 innings. The Cubs finished the road trip 2-5.
They utilized a five-man infield in the 10th with the Reds’ winning run advancing to third base on a passed ball and nobody out. It didn’t pan out as Jesse Winkler’s single to center off Craig Kimbrel ended it.
The Cubs and Reds combined to hit 10 home runs, tying the single-game Great American Ball Park record set April 14, 2014. The Cubs accounted for five homers, including two from Kris Bryant. Ian Happ’s three-run homer in the top of the eighth tied the score at 12.
It marked the first time since the memorable 23-22 shootout loss May 16, 1979, to the Philadelphia Phillies that the Cubs played a game in which both teams hit five-plus home runs.
“It felt like a playoff game, to be honest with you,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Back and forth, intense, nobody giving in, guys continuing to fight. I’m so proud of my team. (That was) one of the more intense games I’ve probably ever been a part of, especially as a manager. These guys didn’t give away an at-bat.”
A scary, hard collision between Happ and second baseman Nico Hoerner briefly stopped play in the eighth. They both pursued Tyler Stephenson’s shallow fly ball with the game tied and a runner on second. Happ tried to slide as Hoerner attempted to leap over him while making the catch.
But Happ took the brunt of the collision, appearing to get hit in the head and mouth. Cubs trainers and Ross immediately came to the outfield to check on both players. A cart was brought out for Happ, who briefly stood at one point before returning to the ground.
“That scene really got to me,” Bryant said, “hearing the two of them coming together like that, being close to it — I don’t want to see that again. Thankfully he’s in (the clubhouse). I was talking to him, made sure to let him know that he had a great game.”
Ross checked in afterward with Happ and said he was in good spirits.
“He feels fine,” Ross said. “Pretty good blow to the face. I haven’t heard the doctor’s report yet.”
His injury forced some creative defensive maneuvering. The Cubs had only Willson Contreras left on the bench. Ross indicated before the game Contreras was available in case of an emergency. Right thigh tightness kept Contreras out of Sunday’s lineup, though he told Ross he felt fine.
Hoerner remained in the game and moved to right field, while catcher Tony Wolters shifted to second base, where he has played 38⅓ big-league innings, including six last year for the Colorado Rockies.
Right-hander Trevor Williams lasted only 2⅔ innings after giving up six runs on six hits and four walks.
The Cubs lost two of three in the series and have won only two series this season: the season-opening three-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates and a sweep of the New York Mets on April 20-22 at Wrigley Field. Here are the highs and lows of the series in Cincinnati.
1. When the Cubs jumped on first pitches, it paid off.
Bryant didn’t waste time looking for a pitch to hit Sunday against Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle. In his first two at-bats, Bryant attacked the first pitch from Mahle, connecting for a double and a home run.
“Some of these guys are just so good, you’ve got to really get to that first good pitch you see and hit it,” Bryant said. “He gave us fits before, really good spin rate up in the zone, a good slider and a split change. I mean, these pitchers are just getting increasingly so good at this game.”
Bryant has better numbers during his career when swinging at the first pitch than when he takes the first pitch. That trend has continued this season, as he entered Sunday with a .313/.371/.594 slash line on first pitches. Three of his nine home runs have been first-pitch homers.
He wasn’t alone in ambushing Mahle. The Cubs went 4-for-5 with two doubles and two home runs on first-pitch swings against the right-hander. The aggressiveness paid off early, helping the Cubs take a 4-2 lead.
“That’s something that we continue to focus on,” Ross said. “Guys jumping on, not waiting around, getting their ‘A’ swing off. Nice day for the offense.”
The Cubs offense generally hasn’t been successful going after the first pitch. Entering Sunday, the Cubs’ .234 average ranked 24th in the majors, but when they have made first-pitch contact, they do damage. Their .449 slugging percentage through Saturday ranked ninth.
2. Walks are hurting Cubs starters.
Part of the risk with a Cubs rotation built more around pitchability than stuff is less margin for error if a pitcher is missing locations. A mislocated fastball at 88 to 91 mph versus 96 mph has a different look, let alone how it can play off secondary stuff. Of course, leaving pitches down the middle of the plate and in the swing path is bad regardless of velocity.
But when command pitchers are issuing walks, that’s problematic. Williams’ four walks Sunday were his most since a career-high five on Aug. 13, 2019, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The problem isn’t limited to one Cubs starter. The group’s collective walk rate is concerning. The Cubs rotation owns the fourth-highest BB% in the majors at 9.9%, which includes Sunday’s performance by Williams.
“Generally, it was the lack of first-pitch strikes,” Williams said of his outing. “I fell behind a lot of hitters from the start, and when you fall behind a lot of hitters, it’s an uphill battle and you’re trying to execute pitches 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 to a really good lineup that could put the ball out of the yard and hit your mistakes.”
The Cubs rotation needs to cut down on walks. That, combined with too many first-inning runs, has put the offense in a tough spot. Four of the seven games on the trip — including back-to-back games the final two days in Cincinnati — saw the Cubs allow multiple runs in the first inning.
3. Ian Happ got his much-needed offensive breakout.
It took 26 games, but Happ finally recorded his first multihit game of 2021.
Happ came into Sunday’s series finale 11-for-79 (.139) with one home run and one RBI. With one swing, he delivered his most production of the season with his game-tying three-run homer in the eighth.
“I got a front-row seat right there for the home run,” Bryant said. “He always plays well here. So hopefully there’s nothing too serious with him and he can continue to do what he did today because that was huge for us as a team and him in general.”
Happ, who played in college at Cincinnati, finished 3-for-5 out of the leadoff spot, where Ross hopes he can get going. He scored three runs and set the tone with a double in the first, helping the Cubs grab an early lead. He looked more comfortable in the batter’s box the last two games in Cincinnati.
More consistent results from Happ at the top of the lineup would help take pressure off the middle of the order.