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Chicago Cubs’ runners in scoring position futility creates slim margin for error, again proves costly in walk-off loss

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Chicago Cubs seem to have developed a formula for frustrating losses.

Step 1: Put runners on base, which Tuesday night at Tropicana Field meant tallying double-digit hits for the third consecutive game.

Step 2: Repeatedly struggle and fail to take advantage of opportunities with runners in scoring position, a constant since the start of May with a .179 average in such situations. No other MLB team in that span is hitting below .200. Yes, not even the 17-50 White Sox, who sit at .225.

Step 3: Squandered offensive chances leave the Cubs pitching staff with little margin for error. The Cubs’ 26 one-run games lead the majors, and they again found themselves clinging to a one-run advantage entering the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Step 4: A painful loss filled with what-ifs that leaves the Cubs (32-35) still trying to build momentum as mid-June approaches.

The Rays tagged closer Héctor Neris with four runs in the bottom of the ninth, handing the Cubs a 5-2 loss on Brandon Lowe’s walk-off, three-run home run.

“We had a bunch of singles today really and we had some balls hit well kind of to the wall and not enough,” manager Craig Counsell said. “But two runs, you’re not going to win most nights scoring two runs for sure so we’ve got to do more offensively.

“There’s some good signs, it’s a bunch of hits. Some balls well hit for outs, but two runs ain’t gonna cut it.”

Lowe got around on Neris’ full-count splitter with two outs to pull it over the right-field wall. It marked the first walk-off home run Neris has surrendered since April 23, 2021, at Colorado when he was with the Philadelphia Phillies.

“You want to do everything and it’s not your day,” Neris said. “I just want to be focused on getting my three outs. As soon as we got the tied game, leave the game like that. But it wasn’t the day today, focus on tomorrow.”

Christopher Morel’s home run in the fourth, his 13th of the season, put the Cubs ahead and they added a run in the sixth on David Bote’s pinch-hit RBI single. The seventh was filled with near runs after Miguel Amaya opened the inning with a walk. Mike Tauchman barreled a 383-foot flyout that would have been a home run at Wrigley Field. Seiya Suzuki scorched a 106.6 mph lineout that had a .720 expected average. Cody Bellinger followed with a double, but Amaya wasn’t able to score from first. Christopher Morel struck out on three pitches to end the inning.

Right-hander Jameson Taillon tossed six shutout innings while limiting the Rays to four hits.

“I mean, it’s tough. We kind of did some of the same stuff last year,” Taillon said. “We’re in a lot of games and the close ones hurt even more, because you were right there, but that’s baseball. You just show up tomorrow and try to get them to start turning your way. Great group of guys, everyone works really hard.

“When push comes to shove with runners in scoring position — I know these guys are prepared. I know everyone’s putting themselves in the best position to succeed and that’s why I’m confident that this whole team is going to come together and start knocking out wins.”

For as many veteran hitters as the Cubs have in their lineup, the group must collectively be better and alleviate pressure on their pitchers. Signs have emerged over the last week of hitters individually becoming locked in, including Dansby Swanson and Seiya Suzuki, but big hits with runners in scoring position still elude the Cubs despite ample chances. The Cubs’ 365 plate appearances with RISP dating to May 1 are seventh-most in the majors in that span yet their 94 total runs put them 25th and their wRC+ is last.

“There’s no question, if we want to score more runs, we’re gonna have to have offense in those spots,” Counsell said.

The Cubs can’t wait for external additions to help get them on track. If this is going to be a playoff team, they need their core group of hitters to start coming through more frequently in prime run-scoring moments. Counsell believes it will happen despite this challenging six-week stretch. The Cubs are fortunate only four teams are above .500 in the National League. But the rest of this season can’t play out like last year, otherwise a long, challenging summer will leave president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer facing more tough questions in October.

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Meghan Montemurro , 2024-06-12 06:06:28

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