There is a new vibe around Wrigley Field this season. You can feel it, for lack of a better term.
When the Cubs went down 3-0 in the first inning on several hard-hit balls off Jon Lester, it didn't feel as if the game was over, as it has in recent years. You just had the sense that the Cubs would get the runs back, and they did, hitting the ball just as hard off Reds starter Mike Leake. The game was tied 3-3 after one, with the biggest hit being the first of two two-run homers from Jorge Soler. (Good luck to the work crews in the bleachers trying to figure out which one was Soler's homer to left, as there were several batting-practice balls left behind in the wooden forms where concrete will soon be poured. Soler's second blast landed in the center-field shrubbery.)
In the end, it was someone who had been very quiet at the plate so far this year who won the game for the Cubs. Arismendy Alcantara, who came up in the 10th inning without a 2015 hit (0-for-16), slapped a bases-loaded single through a pulled-in infield and the Cubs had their third straight win, 7-6 over the Reds. That accomplished several things beyond the win itself:
- The Cubs are alone in first place for the first time since July 30, 2009.
- The Cubs are two games over .500 for the first time since the last day of the 2009 season -- the first time since the Ricketts family bought the team.
- The Cubs are 2-0 in one-run games this year.
- The Cubs have already won two 2015 games in which they trailed entering the eighth inning.
The last of those is a most important point. Winning games when you trail late is very rare. The Cubs were 3-74 last year in games in which they trailed after seven, and did not win a single game (of 79) in which they trailed entering the ninth. And if you think that's just because the 2014 Cubs weren't a good team, the data for all teams is pretty similar. The winning percentage for all teams trailing after seven in 2014 was .083 and for teams trailing after eight, .047.
Good teams do somewhat better: The Angels, who led MLB in wins in 2014, were 9-48 in games they trailed after seven (.158) and the Nationals, who led the N.L. with 96 wins last year, were 7-55 (.113).
Good teams win games like these, at least some of them. The Cubs are showing signs of being a good team this year.
It didn't start that way, at least not in the top of the first. Then, after the Cubs tied the score, both starters settled down and the game breezed into the sixth still 3-3.
"Breezed" would also be a good word to describe Lester's throws to first base. The first one -- his first in almost two years, with Zack Cozart on first with a leadoff single in the second inning -- pulled Anthony Rizzo off first base. The second one flew wildly in the general direction of right field. It ricocheted off the tarp and almost directly to Soler, who threw Cozart out trying to take third base.
So that's the plan, apparently -- make Lester throw over to first in a way that it bounces off the tarp right to Soler, who can throw the runner out. It's the new market inefficiency!
Seriously... Lester needs to work on this, and he knows it:
#Cubs Lester on throws to 1B: "On the first one, it actually felt really good to throw a ball to first base. It's been awhile ...— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 14, 2015
... The second one, I got a little excited. I looked over there and the guy was going the other direction." #Cubs Lester— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 14, 2015
Well, yeah. Anyway, Lester seemed to find a groove after that; following the, uh, "pickoff" he retired 12 of the next 13 hitters until the Reds started hitting him hard again in the sixth, scoring three more runs. Lester managed to finish the inning and though the numbers from his outing don't look good, he was definitely better than his first time out. Remember, it had been eight days since his last start. Perhaps once he gets into the every-fifth-day routine, things will improve.
Props yet again to the Cubs' bullpen, who once again shut down the opposition with no runs. Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for four innings, allowing just three hits and striking out three. Overall this year the pen has thrown 21⅔ innings, allowed 17 hits and five walks (ERA 1.66, WHIP 1.015) and struck out 20.
There was a bit of nervous time in the 10th inning as Rondon allowed a leadoff double to Joey Votto. The next hitter, Todd Frazier, hit a comebacker and Rondon saw he had a chance to get Votto trying to take third.
Third base was being manned Monday night, after the eighth inning, by Chris Coghlan. The Cubs were shorthanded with Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt both banged up, so:
Maddon talked to Coghlan about playing 3B before the game. He took some ground balls there in BP. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 14, 2015
Coghlan was an infielder in the minor leagues before being called up by the Marlins in 2009 and I have suggested here in the past that he should have had some time there in spring training. That didn't happen but, knowing how much Joe Maddon likes to have his players available to play multiple positions, I wasn't surprised to see Coghlan in the infield.
Anyway, Rondon threw over to Coghlan and it wasn't pretty, but Coghlan tagged Votto out and Rondon got out of the inning. The only other time Coghlan touched the ball was later in that inning on an infield dribbler by Marlon Byrd that he couldn't quite handle. In fairness, that ball would have been a tough play for any third baseman. It's useful to have Coghlan available to play positions other than left field. Beyond that, he went 3-for-4 with a home run Monday night.
The Cubs won the game off the Reds' beleaguered bullpen. Manny Parra started the inning by walking Rizzo, who advanced on a wild pitch. Soler singled him to third and Coghlan walked to load the bases with nobody out.
In past years, I might have said, "In what creative and interesting way will they blow this chance?"
Not this time. Like I said, there's a different vibe around this team. Starlin Castro hit the ball hard, but right at Cozart, who threw home for a force on Rizzo.
Then Mendy came up and looked really bad swinging and missing the first two pitches from Burke Badenhop before bouncing his game-winner up the middle.
This team is playing with confidence and you can... well, you can almost feel that in the stands. It's a nice feeling that hasn't been around the Cubs in several seasons. Hope it sticks around. The series against the Reds continues Tuesday night with Jake Arrieta facing Anthony DeSclafani.