With another ninth-inning nightmare, Cubs' road woes could be their undoing

PITTSBURGH -- Just when you thought it couldn't get worse.

It did.

That's how the Chicago Cubs must be feeling after back-to-back walk-off losses. The latest came Friday night against the Pirates when manager Joe Maddon called upon right-hander Brandon Kintzler to protect a one-run lead with one out in the ninth. The problem? Kintzler was fresh off the injured list and predictably didn't have his command. He walked three batters, the first one intentionally but the last one with the bases loaded to bring home the tying run, before Kevin Newman singled home the winner.

"No one feels worse than Kintzler right now, but that's the way this is rolling lately," Maddon said after a 3-2 loss. "You can't give in to it. You have to keep fighting through it. And if you do, you'll come out the other side. We cannot let it get to us."

Maddon said something similar Thursday night when the Cubs lost on a walk-off grand slam by Bryce Harper in Philadelphia. Then came an early morning arrival in Pittsburgh where the team was met by its general manager, Jed Hoyer. Team president Theo Epstein will join the team soon as the organization prepares for a lighthearted day in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for a game Sunday in conjunction with the Little League World Series.

How much fun could that possibly be if the Cubs lose another road game Saturday? Because of a 23-39 record away from Wrigley Field, they're starting to look up at other teams in the standings.

"I don't ever remember [this happening] in my whole baseball playing career," Kris Bryant said of the back-to-back crushing losses. "I don't know how to respond to it. It's new to me. It's new to most of us."

You'll excuse Bryant for not remembering May 5-6, 2018, when the St. Louis Cardinals won consecutive games against the Cubs in their final at-bat. But those came when the Cubs still won some games on the road. It didn't hurt as bad. These sting more.

"It could be a lot better," Bryant said. "It could be a lot worse. We're kind of right in the middle there. Thankfully no one is running away with it. At least we have that on our side."

That's the best the Cubs can muster right now. A thankfulness that the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cardinals haven't run away from them in the division race. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The 2016 World Series winners -- long past their championship hangover -- were supposed to be closer to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros rather than the Cardinals and Brewers. But those teams have improved while the Cubs have, well, stood still. And that might be putting it kindly.

"We can't keep having this conversation over and over," Hoyer said about the Cubs' inconsistent play. "If we continue that cycle, we're going to end up disappointed."

Maddon will undoubtedly get most of the blame, as managers tend to. And there's already a feeling that his days in Chicago are numbered, considering his contract is up at the end of the season. But he has been playing a game of whack-a-mole for most of the year based on an imperfect roster.

He can't seem to make a defensive replacement or pick a reliever to pitch without it coming back to bite him. Both kinds of decisions came into play in the losses Thursday and Friday. He can be the fall guy based solely on the Cubs' road record -- not that he has maxed out on the season either. Maddon hasn't adjusted to the new reality of the Cubs: They might not be as talented as they once were and they're certainly not as deep. Not even close.

"It's a cliché. We just have to keep going," Bryant said. "I don't know what else to say. I really don't."

No one does.