It might be hard to believe, given that the Pirates eventually won 98 games and the Cubs 97, but after this win the Cubs were 4½ games ahead of the Bucs, who were three games under .500 at 17-20. They were also 21-15 and three games behind the first-place Cardinals after Jon Lester had one of his better early-season outings (seven innings, one run, seven strikeouts), and some help from a recent addition to the bullpen, as well as from three guys who did not finish the year with the Cubs.
It seemed likely, with Tsuyoshi Wada coming to the end of his rehab assignment and Travis Wood throwing poorly, that Wada would replace Wood in the rotation and Wood could head to the bullpen.
I don't think any of us thought it would happen just two days after Wood threw 97 pitches in a start against the Mets. But there he was, entering the game in the ninth inning, with Hector Rondon on standby in the pen in case of trouble. It wasn't pretty, as Wood allowed each of the three hitters he faced to put the ball in play, but all three balls were caught and the Cubs had their sixth consecutive win, 4-1 over the Pirates. It's the longest Cubs winning streak since August 2011, the first time they've been six games over .500 since October 3, 2009 and for Wood, it was his first career save.
Before that, Jon Lester continued his road back to solid outings, this one probably his best overall. Though he allowed nine hits, the only one that caused any damage was a solo homer by Sean Rodriguez in the third inning, the only run the Pirates could muster all afternoon. Rodriguez had seen Lester frequently in the A.L. East (40 career PA, one previous homer), so perhaps this could have been expected.
Beyond that, Lester got touched up for quite a number of baserunners, but got out of innings with strikeouts and also with the help of a spectacular diving catch by Addison Russell off Neil Walker's bat with two on and one out in the fifth. The Cubs led just 2-1 at the time and this was perhaps the biggest play of the game.
The Cubs scratched across those first two runs, one each in the first and third. The first run scored on two singles and a sac fly, the second on an infield out, both RBI credited to Starlin Castro without the benefit of a hit. The Cubs couldn't do much else with Gerrit Cole, who shut them down in the fourth, fifth and sixth with just three baserunners, none beyond first base, and five strikeouts in those three innings.
So the game was left to the bullpens, and the Pirates' pen couldn't do it. The charmingly-named Arquimedes Caminero, who throws 100 miles per hour, had no command nor control as he threw the seventh inning. The Cubs scored two runs with no hits at all that inning, thanks to three walks, a stolen base, a throwing error, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Anthony Rizzo. Thus none of the four Cubs runs Saturday scored on a hit, an excellent way of manufacturing runs. It was rather an odd thing on a humid afternoon with the wind blowing straight out to center field. Friday, on a cooler, less humid day, five balls left the yard; Saturday, Rodriguez' homer was the only one. The largest crowd of the year, 38,883, saw this one with the bleachers and nearly every other seat filled. I should note here that the Cubs are undefeated since the bleachers reopened.
Anyway, it was then up to just-recalled Brian Schlitter, Phil Coke and Jason Motte to nail down the eighth inning as it seemed like Joe Maddon was trying to stay away from anyone who had thrown a baseball in relief for the Cubs in Friday's marathon.
Schlitter was booed off the mound after allowing a single to Starling Marte and a double to Jung-Ho Kang. I can't imagine he'll stick around too long.
Coke got Gregory Polanco to hit a comebacker. He held Marte at third and retired Polanco.
Motte replaced Coke and struck out pinch-hitter Pedro Alvarez and got Chris Stewart to fly to Jorge Soler in right to end the inning.
Not pretty, but it worked, and on came Wood (who had also warmed up in the eighth) to nail it down. I suspect Rondon, who was ready in the pen, would have entered the game if anyone had reached base, but Wood managed to retire all three hitters on just 10 pitches. I doubt that closing is in his future, but clearly, he could be an effective member of the pen. He hit 92 on the Wrigley speed meter a couple of times, faster than he usually throws during starts, so maybe one inning at a time is best for him. Lefties have hit .216/.284/.336 against Wood in his career, so maybe being a lefty specialist could work.
Here's a bit more on what the Cubs are likely thinking going forward:
Wood staying in pen. #Cubs to talk rotation tomorrow. Wada seems the choice— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) May 16, 2015
As noted above, that seems logical. Who will go for Wada? Remember, the Cubs are currently carrying nine relievers, and with Wood going to the pen one of the current eight is expendable. That could very well be Schlitter on a return ticket to Des Moines. But even then, the Cubs could use another bench player, as on Saturday they had only their two backup catchers and Jonathan Herrera available. A short bench is one thing -- that's really no bench at all. I wouldn't be surprised to see Junior Lake join the ballclub in San Diego.
But who goes? Is it time to finally cut Edwin Jackson? If they do that, the Cubs will have four lefty relievers (Wood, Coke, James Russell and Zac Rosscup). I suppose that could work, but Rosscup has options and even though he's pitched well, he could be odd-man-out.
We'll find out soon. In the meantime, the Cubs go for a sweep of the entire homestand Sunday afternoon (weather permitting) with Jake Arrieta facing A.J. Burnett.