One of the things this 93-win Cubs playoff team has had trouble with all year is bringing runners home with two out, and stranding too many baserunners in general.
Yes, it was "only" the woeful Cincinnati Reds as the opponent Wednesday night, but the Cubs had eight hits with RISP and scored seven runs with two out in a 10-3 annihilation of the Reds, who lost their 11th straight game. For the Cubs it was their fourth consecutive victory and ended a stretch of seven games in which they had scored no more than four runs.
Sometimes in the postseason, unlikely heroes step up. Perhaps one of those players could be Austin Jackson, who had a career-high five RBI on two doubles and a single. Jackson, who's likely going to start somewhere in the outfield against lefthanded pitching in the playoffs, had struggled much of this year and had been hitting just .193 as a Cub (11-for-57) before this outburst of offense. Hopefully that's a good sign for October.
Starlin Castro also had a big night at the plate, going 4-for-5 and hitting his 11th home run of the season. Castro has a good shot at being named N.L. Player of the Month for September, as he hit .426/.452/.750 during the month (29-for-68) with five doubles, a triple, five home runs, 20 RBI and only 10 strikeouts. I'm really happy for Starlin, who's worked hard since his move to second base and part-time play. Since that move he's played 42 games (26 starts) and is hitting .365/.383/.591 (42-for-115) with nine doubles, a triple and five home runs and just 15 strikeouts. In so doing he's raised his BA 34 points (.235 to .269) and added 104 points to his OPS (.575 to .679).
Castro also turned this defensive gem:
I like the acknowledgment Brayan Pena gave to Castro after the play. You can also see Jon Lester applauding Castro's effort.
Oh, yes, Jon Lester. He had a bit of a shaky first inning, allowing a run on two dinky little hits (one for a single, the other for a double) that barely dropped in, and a sacrifice fly. He gave up another hit in the second, a one-out double to Pena, and then slammed the door, retiring the final 20 hitters he faced in eight innings of stellar work. Lester struck out nine, walked no one, and threw 75 strikes in 101 pitches.
He also reached base twice. The first came on a walk in the third, after which he advanced to second on a single by Kyle Schwarber and scored on Jackson's first double of the evening. Later, Lester singled -- yes! another hit! -- and then moved up two bases on wild pitches, scoring on Jackson's second double. The two runs tied him with Jason Hammel for the team lead in runs scored by a pitcher -- six.
For all the criticism and fun I've poked at Lester at the plate, he's actually improved quite a bit as a hitter over the course of this season. The walk was his third of the year. He's the only Cubs pitcher (and one of just 15 pitchers overall) to draw three walks this season. And, after starting the year 0-for-30, he's gone 4-for-32 with all the walks coming after the 0-for-30 stretch. That's a .125 BA and .200 OBP in his last 16 starts, which, for a pitcher, really isn't all that bad.
Lester broke the 200-inning mark for the fourth straight year. He'll finish with 205 innings and 3.1 bWAR (5.0 fWAR), and I think he had a perfectly fine season. He also broke Ken Holtzman's 45-year-old record for strikeouts in a season by a Cubs lefthander, finishing with 207, five more than Holtzman.
In the ninth inning, with the score 10-1, Mad Scientist Joe Maddon decided to experiment. He put Javier Baez at first base, a position Baez had never played as a professional. Neil Ramirez entered to pitch, a useful inning to see if Ramirez might be helpful on the playoff roster. Jason Bourgeois was the first hitter; naturally, he hit a ball right at Baez, whose attempt at a diving stop failed. Ramirez then walked Tyler Holt and wild-pitched the runners to second and third, where both scored on sacrifice flies. Ramirez then struck out Eugenio Suarez to end the game. Two runs scored off Ramirez, but the inning wasn't as bad as it seemed. However, Ramirez' velocity topped out around 93, whereas last year he was hitting 95 consistently. The brass will have a decision to make about him, then; he doesn't seem quite all the way back from his shoulder problems.
The Cardinals' win over the Pirates Wednesday night clinched the division title for St. Louis and made the Cubs/Pirates wild-card game matchup official. There is still the very small chance that the Cubs could wind up the regular season tied with the Pirates and host the game; otherwise it will be at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. That very small chance now boils down to this:
If the Cubs go 4-0, the Pirates must go 1-2 for a tie at 97 wins. If the Cubs go 3-1, the Pirates must go 0-3 for a tie at 96 wins.
Given the way the Reds have performed against the Cubs in this series, I wouldn't hold out much hope for either of those scenarios happening. The Cubs go for a sweep of the Reds Thursday afternoon while the Pirates have the day off. After that, the Cubs head to Milwaukee while the Reds travel to Pittsburgh for season-ending series. The Reds are 10-6 against the Pirates this year and 4-2 in PNC Park, so there's at least a chance the Reds could take two of three. But the Cubs would then have to run the table, and that would mean a season-ending eight-game winning streak.
The Cubs have done similar things several times since the end of July: ended short little losing streaks with long winning streaks. It would be great to have the wild-card game at Wrigley Field, especially since it was announced Wednesday evening that there would be no wild-card game viewing party at Wrigley:
"We explored the idea of hosting a NL wild-card viewing party for fans at Wrigley Field, in the event we play on the road," Julian Green, the Cubs vice president of communication and community affairs, wrote in an email. "After much consideration regarding the logistics and time required to successfully execute an exceptional guest experience while actively preparing for potential postseason play at home, we have decided to put this plan on hold. "Given the excitement we have seen from Cubs fans this season, we know our fans will find a great place to watch the game and cheer on our team."
As for me, I've managed to secure a ticket and will be heading to Pittsburgh for the game, presuming the very small chance doesn't come through.
In the meantime, there are still four regular-season baseball games to be played, and hopefully won, by the Cubs. The 93rd win Wednesday night tied the 1989 team for third-most for any Cubs team since 1945. Only the 1984 Cubs (96) and 2008 Cubs (97) won more since that last Cubs N.L. pennant team.
Thursday afternoon, Jason Hammel, still fighting for a spot in the postseason rotation, will face Cincinnati's John Lamb. (And yes, it's too bad, as Jim Deshaies said on the broadcast Wednesday evening, that umpire Jim Wolf won't be behind the plate for Lamb's start -- the rotation for this crew has Wolf at first base.) A reminder that this is a day game which will start at 11:35 a.m. CT. The game preview will post at 10 a.m. CT.