The Brewers have come back to the pack in the NL Central and everyone is in the race now. Especially these longtime rivals and pre-season favorites for contesting the division title. More after the jump.
The Cubs are returning home licking their wounds after a disastrous 0-6 west coast road trip in which they scored a grand total of 9 runs. The Cardinals took their last two, splitting a home set with the Dodgers, but had been 3-10 before that so were hopeful of turning things around by extending their modest winning streak. This is the Cardinals` first trip to Chicago this season, after splitting 6 earlier games against the Cubs in St. Louis.
Game 1 was an afternoon affair with Lance Lynn going for St. Louis and John Lackey on the hill for the Cubs. Dexter Fowler greeted his former teammates with a home run on Lackey’s first offering of the game, and the Cards added a second run the next inning on an RBI single by rookie outfielder Magneuris Sierra. But, the Cubs answered with a Kris Bryant home run in the third and a Jason Heyward RBI double in the 6th to square the match at deuces. On to the 8th with Anthony Rizzo greeting Trevor Rosenthal with a leadoff double. The next batter grounded to third but Rizzo successfully executed a daring bit of baserunning by taking third base on the third baseman’s throw to first, allowing Heyward to deliver his second RBI of the game with a sacrifice fly. Chicago closer Wade Davis then set the Cardinals down in order in the 9th to collect his 11th save. Final score: Cubs 3, Cardinals 2
So, how unusual is taking 3rd base on a throw across the diamond by the third baseman? So far this year, there have been 28 groundouts to the 3rd baseman with only a runner at second and nobody out, and Rizzo is the first runner to take third base on the throw. Five runners took 3rd base on the ball in play (four of those on weak contact, on a “swinging bunt” type of play), but every other runner stayed put, even though the potential out would be the second of the inning that is supposed to be worth risking in order to reach 3rd base. Similar story in 2016, when it happened only once (by Jose Bautista) in 108 such plays. But, kudos to Rizzo for pulling off an unconventional baserunning gambit and scoring the game winning run as a result.
Jason Heyward`s two RBI game netted a 0.294 WPA score, hardly a world-beating total, but his best of the season, and third best as a Cub. Heyward`s double was just his third of the season in his 40th game; since George Maisel recorded 7 doubles in 431 PA in 1921, the fewest two-baggers by a Cub outfielder in a full-length qualified season is 12 by Peanuts Lowrey in 477 PA in 1948.
Game 2 was another day game, this time matching Cub southpaw Jon Lester with Cardinal righty Mike Leake. As they did the day before, St. Louis took the early lead with the first four batters of the game reaching base and two of them scoring. Chicago got one of those back with a Javier Baez home run in the 3rd, but Yadier Molina returned the favor with his own solo shot in the 6th. The pivotal inning would be the 7th with Leake still on the mound for St. Louis and apparently in command, having thrown just 77 pitches through six innings. Chicago put runners on the corners with one out and Baez at the plate, but Leake struck him out on three pitches. The pitcher`s spot was up next, so Joe Maddon called on Jon Jay, who loaded the bases by getting plunked on a 1-2 pitch. Kyle Schwarber didn’t leave them loaded for long, going deep on Leake’s first offering and turning a two run deficit into a two run advantage. The Chicago bullpen took it the rest of the way, with Davis collecting save no. 12. Final score: Cubs 5, Cardinals 3
Easy to second guess, but the Schwarber PA, or the preceding one by John Jay, sure seem like spots for your lefty specialist, and the Cardinals have a couple of them in veterans Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil. Problem is that both have had trouble finding the strike zone this season, at 5.9 and 4.5 BB/9 respectively, so one can understand Matheny`s reluctance to go that route with the bases loaded (though Cecil had been much better recently, with only two hits and no runs or walks allowed in his last 5 appearances). Schwarber doesn`t hit lefties at all so, even though he`s batting only .165 this season, I have to go to a lefty in that spot and force Maddon to make the move to his second best pinch-hitter. Leake was just shy of 100 pitches and had already thrown 20 in the inning, so just seems like asking for trouble to leave him in to face a second lefty bat, especially one with Schwarber`s power.
Chicago went for the sweep in Game 3, the Sunday night tilt with Kyle Hendricks going for the Cubs against Michael Wacha for St. Louis. Neither starter would be long for this game, after both struggled through rocky 4th innings. Hendricks labored through 46 pitches and was fortunate to allow just 4 runs on 4 hits and 2 walks, the big blow a 3-run blast by Stephen Piscotty. In the bottom of the inning, the Cubs took Wacha to the woodshed, scoring 5 times on 3 hits, 2 walks and an error, with rookie Ian Happ delivering a 3-run shot, his second long ball in as many innings. St. Louis tied the game with a pair in the 6th, but Chicago retook the lead in the 7th on a two out, pinch RBI single by John Jay. The Chicago bullpen was again lights out, retiring the last 6 Cardinals in order, with the save this night going to Koji Uehara. Final score: Cubs 7, Cardinals 6
Jon Jay is batting .450 as a pinch-hitter this season; that`s the best searchable BA by a Cub in 20+ pinch-hit ABs over his team`s first 55 games. Ian Happ`s two HR game makes him just the second searchable Cub center-fielder to do so in his first 20 career games; you have to go back quite a way to find the first, 92 years to be precise, when Mandy Brooks recorded a pair of such games in 1925. Still just 25, Michael Wacha is struggling to find the form that saw him win his first 3 post-season starts and claim the NLCS MVP award as a rookie in 2013. Through age 23, Wacha was 26-14 with a 3.21 ERA, but just 9-10, 4.97 since.
St. Louis probably deserved a better fate than to be swept in this series, but that`s the way it goes when you`re on a slide, as the Cardinals most definitely are, now with a 5-13 record since May 16th. For Chicago, it was a nice bounce-back following a forgettable road swing. After posting a losing record in their first two homestands, the Cubs have won 10 of their last 12 home games, with a chance to make more hay with the Marlins following the Cards into Wrigley.