Any suspense over whether the Cubs would extend their team scoreless-inning streak past 21 ended after the first three batters Wednesday night. Kristopher Negron led off the game with a double that went to nearly the same spot that Brandon Phillips' no-hitter-breaking double landed Tuesday night, and two groundouts later, the Reds had a 1-0 lead on Kyle Hendricks.
That's when Hendricks went to work on what was admittedly a lineup that resembled a spring-training split squad. Hendricks allowed just six more hits, all singles, didn't walk anyone and recorded eight outs on ground balls, which is exactly his game. He kept the Reds off-balance enough for the Cubs to put together a couple of rallies and win the game 3-1, sweeping the Reds at Wrigley Field for the first time since 2009. Yes, those were different teams, but the last four years against Cincinnati have been win after win after win for the men in the red uniforms. The Cubs are starting to play better against division rivals and that's key for returning to division contention. They finish 2014 8-11 against the Reds, still a losing mark but their best since 2009.
Beyond Hendricks' pitching, another key to this win was a leaping catch into the ivy by Chris Coghlan to end the seventh inning with two Reds runners on base. If not for that grab, the Reds likely take the lead at that point, as the Cubs were hanging on to a 2-1 edge on RBI hits by Chris Valaika and Ryan Kalish in the second inning. Nice work by Coghlan, and the Cubs tacked on an insurance run in the eighth on a single by Luis Valbuena, who was thrown out trying to stretch that into a double.
Hendricks, who has now thrown 82 innings with an ERA of 2.28 and a WHIP of 1.073, seems to be proving he belongs. The Reds were the third team he'd faced for the second time, and while they made adjustments, so did Hendricks. Hendricks will never be a pitcher who will blow hitters away; his fastball (with a handful of exceptions each game) tops out around 91-92, but he's got excellent control and command. That was the fourth time in 14 starts where he issued no walks, and in four other outings he walked just one. He doesn't likely have enough big-league time (and with one more start, probably will fall short of 90 innings this year) to win the Rookie of the Year award, but he could get some downballot votes and he's likely secured a spot in the Cubs' rotation for 2015.
About the only thing Hendricks even remotely did wrong Wednesday night was his bunt in the second inning with runners on second and third and one out. It was a nicely-placed bunt... but the runners went nowhere. What was that? Practice? I think I'd rather have just seen him swing away.
The Cubs now need just three more wins in the seven remaining home games to have a winning season at Wrigley Field. There's another thing they haven't done since 2009; the Cubs are just 182-217 at home since the start of 2010. That'll have to improve in order for the Cubs to return to contention. Having a winning year at home in 2014 would be a good base to build on. The last time a Cubs team had a winning record at home in an overall losing season was 1997 (42-39 at home, 26-55 on the road). Also, the Cubs improved to 7-8 in September with the win; they'll need to go 6-4 over the 10 remaining games to have a winning month. If they can do that, they'll have posted three winning calendar months in 2015, another best-since-2009.
And, with the low-scoring close wins in two of the three games in this series, the Cubs are outperforming their Pythagorean win projection for the first time this year (they had been well under for much of the season). At 68-84, they're one game better than the current projection of 67-85.
It won't be quite as easy against the Dodgers, who come in starting Thursday night for a four-game series and who are fighting a tough battle with the Giants for the N.L. West title, two games ahead as this series begins. Both the Giants and Dodgers are likely headed to the playoffs anyway, but obviously both would like to avoid the one-and-done wild-card game, one of the reasons that extra playoff spot was created in the first place. Thursday's series opener will match the Cubs' Tsuyoshi Wada against the Dodgers' Zack Greinke.