June 26th was not all that long ago. In fact, If you gave an employer two week’s notice on June 26, you’d still be at your job. (Speaking of which, anybody who wants to hire this fine writer should sent me an email. Just a friendly suggestion).

June 26th was a Friday, and the first game of the lost weekend series in St. Louis. But it didn’t look lost right away, not after Jake Arrieta went seven strong innings and left with a 2-1 lead. But then the Cubs’ usually-strong bullpen went to work, and not in a good way.

Pedro Strop came out to start the eighth inning, and the Cardinals sent up a little-used reserve named Greg Garcia to lead off. Just how little-used was Garcia? When he stepped in to face Strop, it was his 27th plate appearance in the majors. That means between you, me, and any glamorous model or historical figure of your choice, we could have counted off all the big-league plate appearances of Greg Garcia, and still had a few fingers left over.

So what did Pedro Strop do against Garcia? That’s right, he surrendered Garcia’s first home run in a major league uniform. Strop then hit Kolten Wong with a pitch, almost surrendered another home run to Matt Carpenter, and walked Jhonny Peralta before being taken out of the game. If the game were at Wrigley Field, Strop would have justly received a torrent of boos upon leaving the game. But the Cardinals fans in Busch Stadium would have liked him to stay in a bit longer, I’m sure.

Strop didn’t lose that game, at least in a statistical sense. But he did give away Jake Arrieta’s chance for the win, and set the Cubs on a downward spiral for the rest of the series. And remember, this was only twelve days ago.

The Cubs bounced back well from that debacle in St. Louis, by sweeping the Mets and then taking a series from the Marlins in Miami. After losing the first game to the Cardinals on Monday Night, they swept a double header Tuesday and–thanks to some hitting heroics from Miguel Montero on Wednesday–were poised to take three of four from the Cardinals.

I wanted a sweep of St. Louis, but would have settled for three of four because it meant gaining two games on the Cardinals in the division standings. This will be a Cardinals-chasing summer, and cutting the lead to 6.5 games would have felt like striking distance, with the entire second half of the season still ahead.

I know that Jason Motte closed out the second game of the doubleheader on Tuesday night. I also know his arm surgery means he needs more attention than he otherwise might. But he has, it seems to me, secured the closer’s role in recent weeks. Sending Motte out to the mound on Wednesday night was not a sure thing, by any means.

But I can’t think of a good reason for sending Strop out to the mound, with the game, the series, and possibly some long-lasting momentum at stake. The last time Strop recorded a save was over a month ago, and he seems to have settled in as an eighth-inning setup man, or someone who pitches the ninth when the Cubs are either behind or well ahead of their opponent. Simply put, he lost the closer’s role, some time ago.

I can’t for the life of me understand why Strop was made the closer again, in a situation of this magnitude. I also didn’t know, before hearing Pat and Ron say it on the radio, that Jhonny Peralta–the biggest home run threat in the Cardinals’ lineup this season–was 5-for-12 lifetime against Pedro Strop. That’s a .417 average, in an admittedly small sample size. But still, it only took one Cardinal batter reaching base to bring Peralta to the plate in the ninth. Surely Joe Maddon and everyone in the Cubs dugout was aware of this possibility.

A 1-2-3 ninth would have taken the bat out of Peralta’s hands and sent all the Cubs fans home happy. And those 300 miles back to St. Louis would have felt like a thousand miles for the Cardinals fans who made their way up here for the game.

The first two outs were a snap, and then everyone came to their feet. But Strop lost his control, and issued a walk to Matt Carpenter on four pitches. All sorts of alarm bells should have started going off at this point.

When Chris Bosio went out to the mound after the walk to Carpenter, it should have Joe Maddon making that walk instead. A closer of long standing might deserve the benefit of the doubt in this situation, but not Strop. Strop has squandered too many opportunities in similar situations before. He’s felt like Carlos Marmol to me on more than one occasion.

But Strop stayed in the game, and we all know what happened next. 5-for-12 lifetime against Strop became 6-for-13, and the Cubs suffered a shocking loss to the Cardinals. This one hurts in too many ways to count, but here goes:

  • It was the first loss all year when the Cubs had been leading after the eighth inning. That feeling of bullpen invulnerability is now gone.
  • It costs the Cubs two games in trying to catch the Cardinals. Rather than being six-and-a-half games back, they are now eight-and-a-half back. That’s a big difference.
  • It takes some of the wind out of the team’s sails. Three series wins in a row, with the White Sox coming in for the weekend, would have felt pretty good. Much better than this feels.
  • The Cubs fell to 4-9 on the season against the Cardinals, with the next meeting between the teams set for Labor Day. If the two teams should meet in October–as Pat and Ron theorized they might–both teams will remember this game, but only one will do so in a good way.

The Cubs let this one get away, and it lies squarely at the feet of Joe Maddon. Bringing Strop in to close the game out, and then leaving him in the game to face a hitter he has not done well against in his career, are two moves that I just cannot understand. He’ll offer his reasons in the post-game conference, I’m sure, but any other move he could have made would have turned out better than the moves he made.

Photo: Wrigley Field / Andor Kish / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped