What a fine way to begin September.
After dire weather forecasts of thunderstorms and rain possibly interrupting the Labor Day game at Wrigley Field, the rain left the area by 11 a.m. and the sun came out just about game time, and that became a fine time for a Cubs win.
Playing well in just about all aspects of the game, the Cubs defeated the Brewers 4-2 and, with the Cardinals' win over the Pirates Monday afternoon, that knocked Milwaukee out of first place in the N.L. Central for the first time since April 4. It was the Brewers' sixth loss in a row.
That sounds good, doesn't it? "Knocked Milwaukee out of first place." Unfortunately, it means the Cardinals are in first place, but maybe the Pirates can help themselves out over the next two days, while, maybe, the Cubs are burying the Brewers.
What sounds even better is "playing well in just about all aspects of the game." This is definitely a Complaint Department Closed type of game, because all I have to report to you on this holiday is good things about the Cubs' performance.
Jacob Turner, in his second Cubs start, showed why he was a No. 1 pick of the Tigers and why he was considered nearly untouchable in trade talks a few years ago. Turner struck out seven, and even when he got himself in a bit of trouble he induced ground balls for a pair of double plays. He was allowed to start the seventh inning, even with a higher pitch count (81 through six) than he had had in any outing since July 27. He retired Aramis Ramirez for the first out of the inning but then Khris Davis launched a ball onto Waveland and Turner was removed to a warm round of applause.
That kind of pitching will get Turner a real shot at a rotation slot in 2015. And remember, he is the youngest current member of the Cubs' pitching staff despite pitching in the major leagues each of the last four years -- he won't be 24 until next May. What a great, smart pickup by Theo & Co., and they didn't really give up anyone of significance to get him, and thanks to the Rockies for passing on a waiver claim of Turner.
Offensively, Jorge Soler, playing in his first Wrigley Field game, was again a big part of the story. Soler hit two more doubles (and really, he could have been given a triple on the second one), and though he hit into a double play and grounded out in his other at-bats, that's yet another fine performance at the beginning of any career, as we learned:
Soler is 3rd to have an extra-base hit in each of his 1st 5 Gs. Also Middlebrooks in 2012, Slaughter in 1938. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 1, 2014
Well, that's one Hall of Famer and one player who still has potential. Soler, of course, has what appears to be unlimited potential. I look forward to his first Wrigley home run, which you'd think ought to come very soon. Soler's been popular enough with his debut on the road that his shirsey and jersey are already selling at a brisk pace -- I saw quite a number of them around the ballpark Monday afternoon.
Most of the Cubs offense was provided by Welington Castillo, who singled in Soler after his first double in the second inning and then hit a two-run homer in the fourth. Luis Valbuena gave the Cubs a cushion after Blake Parker allowed a homer to Gerardo Parra following Davis' homer in the Milwaukee seventh, by hitting his 16th home run of the season with one out in the eighth inning. In all of Cubs history there have been just 27 seasons in which a player has hit 16 or more home runs in 404 or fewer at-bats, which is where Valbuena is right now. He's having a real nice season and I would absolutely want him to stick around as a utility player once Kris Bryant (presumably) comes up to play third base.
The Cubs got the usual sharp relief work from Neil Ramirez in the eighth inning and Hector Rondon (23rd save) in the ninth. That's been one of the biggest differences between the Cubs teams the last two years and this year -- solid relief work from pitchers who have well-defined roles. I do hope that next year when these guys have more experience, that the team can go back to a seven-man bullpen, because as we have seen the last few days, the Cubs could really use a backup first baseman better than Chris Valaika. Whether that's someone from the system (Mike Olt, maybe?) or someone from outside, maybe someone who can play outfield as well as back up first base, they've got to do better.
That's about the only minor quibble I have with Monday's game, a satisfying win that brought the Cubs back to a .500 home record (33-33, with 15 games remaining) and also brought them back to .500 since the low point of the season at 13-27. Since then they're now 49-49 and have, much of the time, looked good doing it.
There's one more record I'd like the Cubs to have this month in finishing the year strong. That would be to go at least 13-12 in September, to have their third winning calendar month this year. They haven't done that since 2009. So, having won the first game of September, they'd simply have to play .500 the rest of the year to do that; it would produce a 74-88 final record, an eight-game improvement over last year. I believe this does make sense -- it's rare to go from 95 losses to 95 wins overnight. This intermediate step could provide a good base for a winning record in 2015.
See? The old optimistic Al is returning. This one was fun.
Hopefully, more fun Tuesday night as Jake Arrieta takes the mound at 7:05 CT against the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo. I'd love it if the Cubs could push the Brewers farther out of first place.