The Cubs made their second ESPN Sunday night appearance a success with another walkoff win over the Reds, the second straight night Starlin Castro had the game-winning hit.
The win improved the Cubs' record to 34-27. They remained in third place, 6½ games behind the Cardinals and half a game behind the Pirates. The half-game gain since the previous day's win was due to the Cardinals being rained out.
The series between the Cubs and Reds at Wrigley Field was, among other things, highlighted by many excellent defensive plays by both teams. This was especially true of the Reds and in particular right fielder Jay Bruce, who made several diving catches (including one that cost the Cubs a chance to sweep this set).
In the 11th inning Sunday night, Reds left fielder Kristopher Negron tried one of those and just barely missed catching a ball hit by Chris Coghlan. Coghlan wound up on second with a one-out double.
The next hitter was Saturday night's hero, Starlin Castro. Castro had already singled twice in four at-bats, and took a ball and a strike. Then he slammed Burke Badenhop's next pitch in the gap between Negron and Billy Hamilton and Coghlan scored easily, giving the Cubs the game, 2-1 over the Reds, and the series, three games to one.
It was the Cubs' 17th one-run win of the year and eighth walkoff win, the latter the most in the majors. The win also put the Cubs at a season-high seven games over .500, marking the first time they had been that far over .500 at the end of a day since September 29, 2009, when they were eight games over. (They then got swept in a doubleheader the next day, which is why I said "the end of a day.")
Castro's heroics ended nearly four hours of compelling, well-played baseball by both teams. At last, we saw the Jon Lester we expected to get last winter. Lester dominated through seven innings, allowing just five hits, no walks and striking out four. The only run he allowed scored in the sixth, when Hamilton doubled just out of the reach of Kris Bryant down the left-field line, stole third (one of five steals he had on the night) and scored on a single by Brandon Phillips, giving the Reds a 1-0 lead.
Joey Votto followed with a double to left-center and Phillips tried to score. He was called safe by plate umpire Toby Basner, but Joe Maddon challenged the call and the replay-review crew overturned Basner's ruling:
That's a key play -- and a nice relay by Castro -- because it left the Reds with what turned out to be their only run of the game. The Cubs won another challenge in the bottom of the inning when Coghlan hit a ball down the right-field line that was ruled foul on the field. That one, shown on the video boards at Wrigley, clearly hit right on the line and the call was reversed in the Cubs' favor. Unfortunately, Coghlan was stranded. Incidentally, for those of you who had been calling for Coghlan to be replaced, he's heating up now, just as he did last year. Since May 31, Coghlan is hitting .370/.431/.543 (17-for-46) with five doubles, four walks and seven RBI. Overall his numbers are up to .249/.320/.453, and the .773 OPS has produced a 117 OPS+ and he is now in positive bWAR territory (+0.8).
The Cubs tied the game in the seventh. David Ross hit a ball just out of reach of Reds third baseman Todd Frazier down the line and legged out a double. Given the fact that Lester was about to be pinch-hit for, I was surprised Miguel Montero didn't run for him at that point. Montero had been on deck to bat for Lester, but instead, Jonathan Herrera came to the plate and sacrificed Ross to third. After Addison Russell walked, Dexter Fowler tied the game with a sac fly to right, scoring Ross, the first time Ross has scored this year. Lester batting watch: he grounded out twice and is now 0-for-27 this year, 0-for-63 in his career. At least one person thinks Lester will soon get a hit:
Guarantee #Cubs Lester will get a hit this year
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 15, 2015
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One more challenge happened in the seventh inning, this one won by the Reds. Basner ruled that a 2-2 pitch hit Anthony Rizzo, but it was overturned on review. Rizzo wound up striking out to end the inning, and had a rare bad night at the plate, going 0-for-5 with two K's.
Hector Rondon was summoned in a non-save situation to throw the eighth, which he did uneventfully by recording three fly-ball outs. Jason Motte came in to throw the ninth and immediately got into trouble by giving up a single to Votto and a double to Frazier. Bruce was intentionally walked, loading the bases with nobody out.
These are situations that in recent years would have had Cubs relievers giving up big innings. But Motte got Brayan Pena to lift a fly ball to center, too shallow to score a run. He struck out Eugenio Suarez and then threw four straight 97-plus fastballs to Negron, who hit a fly ball to Fowler to end the inning, excellent pitching. Motte, after a rough start to this year, has now not allowed a run in his last 12 appearances covering 9⅔ innings. In that time he's allowed just seven baserunners (five hits and two walks) and struck out eight, looking much more like the Motte who piled up a league-leading 42 saves for the 2012 Cardinals.
The Cubs went down 1-2-3 in the ninth and on we went to extras, with Edwin Jackson in the game. This didn't bode well, but Jackson again pitched reasonably well. He retired pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch, then walked Hamilton. This is something you should never do, as Hamilton is barely hitting over .200 and had walked just 12 times in 231 previous plate appearances this year. Hamilton stole second off Jackson and then Zac Rosscup was summoned after Jackson struck out Brandon Phillips.
Hamilton then stole third without a throw. But Rosscup retired Votto on a fly to left, and on the game went. The Cubs couldn't do anything with Badenhop in the 10th, and on the game went to the 11th. Rosscup struck out Todd Frazier, but then issued a pair of walks. Brian Schlitter, just recalled from Triple-A Iowa due to a bit of pen overwork in this closely-played series, entered the game. He got Suarez and Negron to hit into force plays to end the inning.
The Reds, as you know, have a relief pitcher who can consistently throw 100-plus. Aroldis Chapman has struck out 47 of the 125 batters he's faced this year. He was warming up at times in the late innings -- at one point the game had to be stopped because a pitch he threw got away and hit first-base umpire Ron Kulpa, who was examined by a Cubs trainer and turned out to be all right.
But Chapman never got into this one. Instead, Badenhop continued. He got Bryant to ground out, but then Coghlan hit his double and Castro his single and the Cubs had the win. I'm happy the Reds never used Chapman in this one. In a series when all four games were decided by one run, two in extra innings, Chapman appeared just once. Chapman's record against the Cubs: 31 games, 31⅓ innings, 18 hit, four runs (1.15 ERA), 55 strikeouts. Why a manager wouldn't want to use his best reliever in a game like this is beyond me; it appears Bryan Price is wedded to the "closer only pitches when we're ahead" model. It could have cost him the game.
We, of course, are happy about that. The Cubs, who have had terrible trouble defeating the Reds the last few years, are sorry to see them leave Wrigley, as they're now 7-2 against them this year.
And for the first time all weekend, the weather cooperated. Despite forecasts of rain and storms, the sky stayed partly cloudy and a light lake breeze began blowing early in the game, dropping the humidity and making the evening at the ballpark quite pleasant.
I'm very happy for Castro, who came through twice in a row in walkoff situations. Know how rare that is for a Cubs player?
According to Elias, Castro is 1st #Cubs player with walkoff RBI in back-to-back games since Ron Santo 1966
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 15, 2015
The Cubs now head into a week of interleague play. They'll take on the Indians in a four-game set with two in Chicago and two in Cleveland. Tonight at Wrigley, while much of Chicago's attention will be focused on happenings at the United Center, Jake Arrieta will pitch against Trevor Bauer.