Cardinals can’t capitalize after Braves lose

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Facing opponents simply playing out the string, just one of the top four wild card contenders — the Tampa Bay Rays — could muster a victory on Monday night.  In the NL, the Braves lost 4-2 to Cliff Lee and the Phillies, and the Cardinals followed with a 5-4 loss to the Astros in 10 innings.

The Braves remained one game up with two left to play.

Atlanta’s loss was less surprising, though the Braves did manage to score twice off Lee early.  Chipper Jones homered in the first, and Alex Gonzalez doubled in Matt Diaz in the second.

“Everybody was swinging free and easy. We were ready to play,” Jones said. “After the first two innings, I would’ve given us a 99.9 percent chance to win the game.”

Too bad that proved to be it for the Braves offense. 21-year-old Randall Delgado gave back the lead, surrendering two runs in five innings, and the bullpen stumbled from there.  Raul Ibanez knocked in Shane Victorino in both the sixth and eighth innings with singles.

Philadelphia’s second win in a row after eight losses made the Phillies 100-60 for the season.  It’s the third time in franchise history that it’s reached the century mark. Lee was expected to throw about 70 pitches, but manager Charlie Manuel let him throw 92 and complete six innings for his 17th victory.

St. Louis had a more favorable matchup against the team with the game’s worst record.  However, Jaime Garcia struggled, yielding four runs in four innings.  The Cardinals rallied from 4-2 down in the eighth, with Lance Berkman delivering a game-tying two-run double, but they failed to plate the go-ahead run from second with none out or from third with one out.

After leaving more men on base the next two innings, the Cards lost it in the bottom of the 10th.  Octavio Dotel, who was perfect in the ninth, gave up a leadoff double to Brian Bogusevic and then committed an error on Jason Bourgeois’ sacrifice attempt.  A squeeze bunt followed, with Angel Sanchez driving in the winning run.  Dotel had a chance on that one too, but he failed on an attempt to flip the ball to catcher Yadier Molina with his glove.

Mark Melancon pitched two scoreless innings to earn the win for Houston.  Matt Downs had a two-run homer.

The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.