If this had been a game played in similar weather conditions in late October or early November as part of a Cubs/Royals World Series, it would have been legendary. As it was, it was quite an unusual pitchers' duel, with some controversial umpiring calls and the winning run driven in by a player who had only nine RBI all year. The win made the Cubs 26-22. They were still in second place behind the Cardinals, but now six games behind.
I don't think I've ever seen a game quite like this one, a 2-1, 11-inning Cubs win over the Royals.
First of all, I can't ever remember an afternoon this cold when the calendar was about to turn to June. The temperature at game time was 47 degrees -- that's the average high for mid-March. Or mid-November, which, with the wind howling in at 21 miles per hour, is what it felt like at Wrigley Field.
That made it very likely we'd have a throwback-type pitchers' duel, and that's what we got. The Cubs couldn't solve Yordano Ventura for the first six innings, during which Tsuyoshi Wada mostly matched him. Wada allowed just two hits in the first five innings, one of them a bloop double that the wind pushed out of reach of both Chris Coghlan and Starlin Castro in short left field. Wada then got the first two outs in the sixth and would have finished the inning, but a 3-2 pitch to Lorenzo Cain wound up as ball four. That brought Travis Wood in from the pen; Wood wasn't good. He issued another walk and then Alex Gordon singled in the first run of the game.
For a time it appeared that might be enough, but the Cubs got to Ventura in the seventh. He walked Miguel Montero on a very close 3-2 pitch, and wild-pitched him to second, at which time Joe Maddon sent Jonathan Herrera in to run. Herrera scored on a Coghlan single, Coghlan's third hit of the game. Inexplicably, Coghlan tried to take second after slowing down while rounding first, and was thrown out by Cain.
That's when the Cubs' bullpen really turned it on. Justin Grimm had been called on to relieve Wood for the final out of the sixth, and from then through the 10th, the collective pen (Grimm, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, James Russell and Jason Motte) retired 12 straight hitters, six by strikeout, before Motte issued a two-out walk to pinch-hitter Eric Hosmer in the 10th. Hosmer was stranded when Mike Baxter caught a fly ball tailing away from him in foul territory near the right-field bullpen.
That's right, Mike Baxter in the field. It was just the second time he'd played the field in the big leagues this year and the first time he'd played major-league right field since 2013. As the last position player, he was double-switched into the game when Motte relieved Russell in the 10th. Jorge Soler had made the last out of the ninth, so in Baxter came... and he nearly won the game, because his one-out fly ball in the bottom of the 10th was caught on the warning track. On any other late-spring day, that ball's in the seats.
That came after the Cubs had a chance to win the game in the ninth. Anthony Rizzo laced a one-out line drive into the right-field corner and huffed and puffed all the way to third base with his second triple of the season. Starlin Castro was intentionally walked to pitch to David Ross, whose bunt attempt nearly wound up as a base hit when Wade Davis had to look Rizzo back to third. It was close enough that Joe Maddon asked for a replay review. But the play stood as an out (the call was confirmed, and the runners held. That's when Soler struck out to end the rally.
Motte retired the first two hitters in the 11th on ground balls, but then walked Kendrys Morales. Zac Rosscup was summoned and he allowed a single by Alex Gordon, which sent Morales scampering (as much as a guy who's had a serious ankle injury in his past can "scamper") to third base. But Rosscup struck out Salvador Perez to send the game to the bottom of the 11th.
Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant both walked off Ryan Madson. Credit to both of them, because both were excellent at-bats, particularly by Bryant, who fell behind 0-2 before taking four pretty close pitches for balls. That brought up Rizzo, who singled sharply to left field. Gary Jones sent Fowler, and the play was very, very, very close. Fowler was called out and after a fairly long replay review, the call stood. They did show the replay on the right-field video board so those of us in left field could see it (they've been doing it on the left-field board, too), and it was extremely hard to tell whether Fowler's hand touched the plate before Perez tagged him. Inconclusive, I thought, and plus, I can't recall a replay review which would have reversed an on-field call and ended a game. Not that the situation should matter, because if there's conclusive video evidence, it should be overturned. Here's a look at the play, you decide:
Anyway, that set up the same situation as the ninth inning. Castro was intentionally walked again, and the winning run was on third with one out and Ross at the plate. At first I thought he might try the squeeze again, but he swung and missed the first pitch from Jason Frasor. Then he looped a little popup between shortstop and left field and Alcides Escobar couldn't make the catch. Bryant ran home and the Cubs had won another tight one. It's the 24th one-run game for the Cubs this year (14-10), once again exactly half the schedule, and they move back to four games over .500 despite a negative run differential (195-197).
The Cubs showed they can play a good team like the Royals tough; this one had a bit of everything, good pitching, good defense and timely hitting. It was really nice to see the bullpen step up and shut the Royals down, given some of the recent pen troubles. Also nice was seeing Coghlan go 3-for-4. Perhaps he's coming out of his season-long slump, as he did just about this time last year.
It's a good thing the Cubs won when they did, because they were out of bench players (Jason Hammel was on deck to bat for Rosscup) and the only bullpen arm remaining was Edwin Jackson.
The Cubs did a tribute to Lennie Merullo on the video board before the game and asked for a moment of silence, a nice touch.
The throwback uniforms, this time to the 1915 Chicago Whales of the Federal League, were done beautifully, just as the throwbacks were done all last year. Some of the Cubs wore two-tone socks, with blue on the top and white on the bottom, an excellent look which you can see in the photo above. This game, incidentally, was played exactly 100 years to the day that the Whales hosted the Kansas City Packers at Weeghman Park. And here's a coincidence that's even more interesting, given the date. On May 31, 1915, the Whales beat the Packers in the second game of a doubleheader... 2-1. In 11 innings.
Perhaps that will be a portent of good things to come in 2015. The Cubs head to Miami to face the Marlins in a three-game set that kicks off a nine-game road trip. Hammel gets the call against Miami's Jose Urena.