The Cubs gave up five runs in the eighth inning Aug. 6 to Washington, turning a 4–3 lead into an 8–4 deficit in a 9–4 loss. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

8th Inning Struggles

In the 2nd half the 8th has been a killer for the Cubs

When Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte led off the eighth inning Tuesday night with a bunt single that hugged the third-base line before hitting the bag, many Cubs fans probably had a here-we-go-again feeling.

After all, the eighth inning has been the Cubs’ bugaboo in the second half of the 2017 season, a second-half in which the defending champions are tied with Washington for the second-best record in the majors at 28–15. But they could be running away with the NL Central if not for the eighth inning.

So when Pedro Strop got Josh Harrison to fly out to center and Andrew McCutchen to ground into a force out, and then Brian Duensing got budding Cub killer Josh Bell to fly out to center, it was a breath of fresh air.

There was no comeback for the opposition. Not even any real drama as the Pirates didn’t even advance a runner into scoring position. It also was a little surprising to see an eighth inning with the Cubs holding a small lead go so smoothly.

In 43 games since the All-Star break, the Cubs have allowed the opponent to score in 23 eighth innings for a total of 45 runs. That’s more than a run an inning.

OK, so the Cardinals scoring nine on July 21 is a big inflator. Take that out, though, and it’s still 36 runs in 42 eighth innings, which would be a 7.71 ERA.

From Aug. 14 to Aug. 19, the Cubs allowed at least one eighth-inning run in six consecutive games.

In the past 26 games, the Cubs have given up runs in 18 (69 percent) for a total of 30, which doesn’t even include the Cardinals game. That’s an ERA of 10.38.

Now, for the worst part. Before Tuesday’s triumph, the Cubs have had a one- or two-run lead heading into the opponent’s half of the eighth inning 10 times in 42 post All-Star break games. Six times, yes S-I-X, they then left that half-inning without the lead.

Granted, in two of those contests — Orioles on July 14 and Reds on Aug. 16 — the Cubs scored in the ninth inning to win the game. But that still leaves four times — Cardinals on July 21, Diamondbacks on Aug. 3, Nationals on Aug. 6 and Reds on Aug. 24 — that the Cubs have gone from winning in the eighth to losing a game in the second half of the season.

That’s a frustrating stat when considering closer Wade Davis is 27 of 27 in save chances, so the Cubs know that getting through the eighth inning with a lead intact is akin to winning the game. Turn three of those four come-from-ahead-losses around, and the Cubs are 74–57 with a 6.5 game lead over the Brewers with 31 games remaining.

This is a problem that simply must be fixed if the Cubs are going to have any shot of defending their title in October. Likely NLDS opponent Washington has a scary lineup that will be tough for any playoff opponent to navigate even without this flaw.

On paper, the Cubs should be good in the eighth with options like Duensing, Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery, all of whom have an ERA of 3.38 or lower.

Edwards, who was in the thick of the Cardinals collapse and led the destruction against the Nationals, has gotten his grove back recently. In those two appearances, he recorded two outs while giving up seven earned runs. In 10 appearances since the Washington game, he’s allowed one run in 8 2/3 innings.

Strop, who didn’t allow an earned run in July plus his first three appearances of August, had given up three earned runs in two of his previous three outings before Tuesday. That included allowing the eighth-inning comeback against the Reds, turning a 2–1 advantage into a 4–2 loss on Aug. 24.

“Guys nailed it in the first half, but for whatever reason, the bullpen guys have taken a little bit of a hit (in the second half),” manager Joe Maddon said after one of the collapses. “But I like the names. I think they’re in good shape. I like it.”