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After two consecutive tough, one-run losses, the Cubs showed plenty of fight on Saturday against the Cardinals. And yet, it still ended with what could be described as a knockout punch.
"We needed the 16-ounce gloves for that fight right there," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said postgame. "We had the right guy there at the end. You talk about two shots to the jaw -like poom-poom - and they got the win."
For the second time this weekend, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel was victimized by the long ball. With the Cubs leading 8-7 in the ninth, Kimbrel surrendered solo home runs to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on consecutive pitches, giving the Cardinals a 9-8 lead - ultimately the game's final score.
"Today is not an easy day," Kimbrel said postgame. "First and second pitch of an inning, [I] felt like I made two competitive pitches that I wanted to, and it went out.
"It's just frustrating, that's the only thing I can say."
Saturday's loss all but eliminates the Cubs from NL Central contention, as their tragic number is down to two with seven games left. They're also 2.5 games back of the Brewers for the last Wild Card spot, pending the outcome of Milwaukee's matchup with the Pirates on Saturday.
The result is obviously all that matters, but it's not like Kimbrel left two meatballs over the heart of the plate. Molina's home run came off a 97-mph fastball that was up and out of the strike zone, while DeJong hit a 96-mph heater that was up in the zone.
"First one was out of the zone, second was up," Kimbrel said. "Thought it was a good pitch to the hitter, based on what I saw. They just put the barrel on it, and it went out.
"I was pumped out there, I was excited, felt like I had good stuff. And then right there off the bat with two home runs. Frustrating."
Kimbrel returned to the Cubs on Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list with right elbow inflammation. With the minor league season over, the 31-year-old couldn't go on a rehab assignment, though he did throw a simulated game on Tuesday.
However, Kimbrel insisted that his recent outings have nothing to do with his health. In fact, he said that he feels great.
"I feel great right now. I mean, my last two outings I've felt great," he said. "I just didn't get the results I wanted, the results I need to have to do my job."
"He's had ample time to build his arm strength back up, and it was nothing wrong with his arm strength," Maddon said. "After [the home runs], he made some really good pitches at the other guys."
One of the tougher parts of Kimbrel's last two outings is that they've followed rallies by a Cubs offense that has been inconsistent in September. Thursday, they scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up before passing the ball to Kimbrel.
After surrendering two runs in the seventh inning Saturday, the Cubs put up two runs of their own that inning, retaking the lead. That lead didn't hold, but the Cubs still are confident in their closer.
"Of course," Maddon said. "We were at that point where we've built the game towards him, and I want to continue to do so. I thought his stuff was actually better today than the other day.
"It felt really good about the moment right there, the way we fought back, him coming in the game, had already been in one game, has had ample time to get it back together. It was kind of surprising."
"Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "He puts in the work. We all see it.
"He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It's tough. I know he feels bad, but he's a competitor and he's a champion and he'll bounce back."