Saturday's 3-0 Cubs win over the Cardinals was instructive in quite a number of ways.
First, it appears clear that Junior Lake would not have started this game had Ryan Sweeney not been injured Friday. Lake hasn't been on a strict platoon, but you can imagine that Rick(y) Renteria wouldn't have likely started him against Michael Wacha, except for the unusual situation of having a newcomer to the team (Chris Coghlan) or Ryan Kalish as the other options.
So Lake got a start. And Wacha is usually around the strike zone. And Lake, a free swinger, took advantage of that, going three-for-three with a two-run homer. Starlin Castro, another free swinger, had the only other two hits the Cubs had off Wacha. As it turns out, Lake's home run would have been enough for the win, but Anthony Rizzo launched a ball helped by the strong northwest wind blowing toward the right-field bleachers, this one off yet another lefthander, Randy Choate, completing the scoring.
Sometimes overthinking things is not good. We've found that out with Castro, who appears to do his best work when he simply reacts rather than thinks too much. Perhaps Lake is the same type of player.
Also, before anyone says Lake was "a triple short of a cycle," you should know that having a single, double and home run in a game is somewhat commonplace. It happened 238 times in 2013 (and 245 in 2012, so you can see it's fairly constant year-to-year) and Lake's is the 35th such game so far in 2014.
Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta managed to work himself out of a couple of jams, in the first and second innings, and settled in to throw 82 pitches (56 strikes) before being lifted after allowing a one-out single in the sixth. Arrieta was also helped by a replay reversal of a "safe" call on an infield grounder by Allen Craig for the last out of the fifth. It was a nice play made by Mike Olt, but umpire Angel Hernandez ruled that the throw pulled Rizzo off the bag. Review -- and it didn't take long -- showed that Rizzo's foot came down before Craig's foot touched first base. That's the way review is supposed to work -- quickly and decisively.
That's the way this whole game was for the Cubs. The bullpen did excellent work, including an out recorded by James Russell, the forgotten man of the pen. It was his first game appearance in 10 days, though he's thrown what seems like hundreds of pitches warming up in the interim. Neil Ramirez kept up his good start and Pedro Strop threw an uneventful setup inning.
Now let's talk about Hector Rondon's ninth inning. He gave up singles to Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta, bringing the tying run to the plate.
I really have no problem with this. That took three pitches. It's clear that Rondon is challenging hitters with first-pitch fastballs and that's great. Molina and Peralta are good hitters and they had the upper hand. This is still better than having a Carlos Marmol-type closer who would put the first two runners on via walks and...
Well, you know. Then Rondon got another good hitter, Jon Jay, to offer at the first pitch. That one turned into a comebacker, a 1-6-3 double play, and Rondon finished off the inning by striking out Mark Ellis on four pitches. That's an eight-pitch save.
Know how rare that is for the Cubs? A three-out save on eight pitches or fewer? Strop had a seven-pitch save earlier this year. Kevin Gregg had one last year. And before that? Carlos Marmol in September 2010. (To be fair, this is fairly rare for all teams. Just 60 saves recorded in 2013 were one-inning, eight-pitches-or-fewer saves.)
This is something I could get used to. Renteria used flowery language in regard to this:
Pre game, #Cubs Renteria said closer situation was "fluid." Now, it's "organic." Rondon picked up 3rd save— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) May 3, 2014
"Fluid"? "Organic"? Sounds like Renteria is planting a garden, not managing a baseball team. At this point, I think I'd give Rondon the closer job; they can figure out what to do with Jose Veras if and when he comes back.
So the Cubs have won the series. They'll have a chance to sweep on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. That's pretty cool. Here's how rare this is: the last series win was last September 9-10-11 in Cincinnati. The last one at Wrigley was last August 30-31-September 1 vs. the Phillies. And the last time before now that the Cubs have had two shutouts in a calendar week was the last week of the 2010 season, when they shut out the Padres twice in San Diego and then had one over the Astros in Houston.
That wasn't a very good Cubs team and, frankly, this one isn't either. But they have played very good baseball the last two days against a Cardinals team that doesn't appear to have things together as they had the last several seasons. A sweep seems eminently possible. No matter what else happens this season, that'd be really nice.
It's Jason Hammel against Lance Lynn, on national TV. Let's hope the Cubs show the national audience what they've shown us the last two days.