David Ross did this year what most backup catchers do these days: give the main guy some days off, play reasonable defense and not hit too much. In this game, he literally won the game by picking off a runner for the final out. Jake Arrieta was beginning to become Jake Arrieta! (six innings, one run, eight strikeouts) and the Cubs improved to 28-24. Two straight losses to end the series in Miami had dropped them out of second place. After this win they were third, half a game behind the Pirates and seven games in back of the first-place Cardinals.
The David Ross complaint department is closed, for today, at least.
The Cubs' 38-year-old backup catcher, whose gray beard makes him look older, nearly singlehandedly won Thursday night's game for the team. He threw out two runners trying to steal and picked Clint Robinson off first base to end the Cubs' 2-1 win over the Nationals after a struggling Hector Rondon put both the tying and winning runs on base. The huge smile on Rondon's face as the team exchanged high-fives showed how relieved he was that he didn't have to throw any more pitches.
Let's go back to the beginning of this long night in Washington. Persistent rain delayed the start of the game nearly two hours, and drizzle and light rain fell occasionally on Nationals Park. The Cubs, who hadn't scored off Gonzalez in his last four starts against them covering 29 innings, looked like they would blow the game open in the first inning.
Dexter Fowler singled, and Kris Bryant walked, and Bryant didn't even have to run the count to 0-2 to do so, as he's already done several times. Anthony Rizzo singled to right, but not deep enough to score Fowler, not off Bryce Harper's arm, anyway.
Now the Cubs have the bases loaded and nobody out. They've actually done quite well in these situations this year. And I can't say enough good things about the at-bat Junior Lake had here. He worked the count full and then took a very close pitch for ball four. Maybe Junior's figuring it out; in past years he probably would have swung and missed.
So the Cubs had a 1-0 lead and Starlin Castro at bat. Castro also ran the count full and then... hit into a double play. The pitch was very, very close and might have also been ball four. A run scored to make it 2-0, and when Matt Szczur grounded out, an inning that could have knocked Gio out of the game instead gave the Cubs just two runs.
But hey, it's only the first inning. They'll score more, right?
Jake Arrieta set about setting down Nationals. He struggled at times with command, but in the end, threw six good innings, allowing just one run, on a bases-loaded groundout by Bryce Harper in the sixth. Overall Arrieta gave up six hits, didn't walk anyone, and struck out eight. Arrieta lowered his WHIP to 1.08, 12th in the National League.
Then the parade of Cubs relievers began. Justin Grimm put a couple of runners on base in the seventh, but James Russell got Denard Span to pop up. Joe Maddon, playing platoon baseball in this inning, called on Jason Motte to pitch to Anthony Rendon. Motte struck him out on a 98 mile per hour fastball that was reminiscent of what he used to throw in his days as Cardinals closer. If Motte can continue this -- and he hasn't allowed a run in his last eight outings covering 5⅔ innings -- the Cubs' setup relief will be significantly improved.
Pedro Strop threw an uneventful eighth inning, and as the Cubs' offense had sputtered, with just four singles and two walks after that first-inning rally, it was up to Hector Rondon to protect a one-run lead, as the game pushed past midnight Eastern time.
Rondon, who has frequently dispatched opposing teams in the ninth inning with 10 pitches or fewer, didn't have control nor command Thursday night. He gave up a one-out single, then a walk, which prompted a Chris Bosio visit to the mound. Another out followed, a fly ball to medium-deep center field, and then Robinson pinch-hit for Aaron Barrett. Rondon walked him, too, and then ran the count to 2-1 on Anthony Rendon. Rondon threw his 19th pitch and Ross made his snap throw to first, catching Robinson leaning, and the Cubs had their win. Can you tell Ross was psyched about what he had just done?
Rondon had his 10th save, but you have to give some credit to Ross, as the Nats had the tying and winning runs on base and Rondon hadn't been throwing strikes -- just seven in 19 pitches. The play was awfully close, but I don't think it would have been reversed on review. To me, it looked like Rizzo swiped his glove down on Robinson's right hand or arm just before he got his left hand on the base.
But wins are wins, and you take them any way you can get them. The Cubs posted yet another one-run victory, their 14th in 24 such games this year, and evened up their road-trip record at two wins each, starting out this set in Washington in exciting fashion.
Beyond the one-hour, 51-minute rain delay, the game went on for three hours and 16 minutes, the Cubs' second-longest nine-inning game this year (the only one longer: May 4 in St. Louis). For those of you who think that the length of games is what bothers me, that's not the case. This game didn't drag at all. It didn't feel like a three-hour game. There were a number of excellent defensive plays. For example, beyond Ross' good night, there was this nice running, sliding catch by Fowler on a sinking line drive hit by Harper, and this terrific diving stop by Addison Russell to retire Danny Espinosa. (For some reason, MLB.com allowed me to embed the Ross play, but not the others. Go figure.)
Compelling baseball, for sure, and a really nice win. The Cubs will go for two in a row over the Nats Friday evening. There shouldn't be any weather issues. Tsuyoshi Wada will pitch for the Cubs; Tanner Roark for the Nats. Incidentally, that means Ross heads to the bench and Miguel Montero will catch against the righthanded Roark. Despite his lack of hitting, Ross has absolutely provided value this year. The Cubs have put together a pretty good catching platoon, in my view.