You know, for a while there I thought the Cubs were going to pull out another miracle win.
And that's perhaps the biggest difference between this year's Cubs and those of the last couple of seasons -- watching them, you actually believe they can do it, and several times this year they already have. There's no doubt the players themselves believe they can do it; that's a function of talent, the fact that they've done it already, and Joe Maddon's leadership.
The Pirates beat the Cubs 4-3, but not before the Cubs mounted an eighth-inning, two-run rally against Pirates relievers Jared Hughes and Tony Watson. With the bases loaded and nobody out and a run already in, it looked like the Cubs might score more, but Watson, a pretty good reliever, shut them down. This points up one problem this team has -- the eight-man bullpen. It leaves a very short bench and though Jonathan Herrera has done a decent job this year, I don't think he's the guy you really want at the plate in a game situation. He flied to right in foul territory with runners on first and second. That left it up to Addison Russell, who earlier had recorded his first big-league hit. Russell will get many more chances like this one, but this time he hit a line drive right at Pirates second baseman Neil Walker to end the eighth.
Still -- coming from three runs down to make it a one-run game with an offense that seemingly couldn't get untracked at all, that's a real good thing. The Pirates decided not to go back to Mark Melancon in the ninth up a run, instead sticking with Watson, who retired Chris Denorfia and Jorge Soler on easy groundouts.
Then Anthony Rizzo singled, his second hit of the game. It was Kris Bryant time! Could Bryant take the "hero" title for the evening by driving in the tying run, or even hit his first big-league home run to give the Cubs the lead?
Now that would have been miraculous. It was not to be. Bryant struck out on a nasty sinker from Watson to end the game. That first homer will come and I'm sure Bryant will be the hero for the Cubs many times in the next few years.
What I'm really curious about is who would have played first base if the Cubs had tied the game or taken the lead. Maddon sent Travis Wood in to run for Rizzo during Bryant's at-bat. The Cubs had used all their position players -- another problem when you have only four bench players -- and as of the removal of Rizzo, the only player of the remaining seven who had ever played first base in the major leagues was Herrera, who played a couple of innings there last May 25. Against the Rays in Tampa. Maybe Maddon made a mental note of that at the time.
Or heck, maybe it would have been Bryant. Maddon didn't hesitate to send Bryant to play center field in the bottom of the eighth, the first time he has played the outfield in his professional career (except a couple of games in left field in spring training). Bryant had a ball lofted in his direction by Walker and caught it. He seems a good enough athlete to play anywhere on the field, and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets some reps at first base. Maddon seems gung-ho to have his players competent at multiple positions.
The reason the Cubs needed an additional center fielder was an injury to Dexter Fowler in the first inning. Fowler apparently had a groin pull when he legged out an infield hit in the first inning; he stole second but was removed from the game. I figured it might be precautionary in the cold, wet weather (as you can see in the photo above, it snowed for a while during the game) and that appears to be the case:
#Cubs @DexterFowler says he was removed from game as precautionary move. Was feeling better post game— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 23, 2015
That would have been interesting, to see Bryant at two positions he'd never played before. There's no doubt a pitcher (probably Wood, who played some outfield in high school) would have had to take the field, since the Cubs were down to seven position players.
Jason Hammel wasn't sharp Wednesday, but the game would have been tied with the eighth-inning rally had he not been touched for Gregory Polanco's first homer of the year in the fifth. Only three of the four runs off Hammel were earned. That's notable because the unearned tally, due to a Starlin Castro error, was the Cubs' first unearned run allowed this year. They were the last MLB team to allow an unearned run this year -- in 2014, they led the National League in this dubious category with 71.
Credit is due the Cubs' bullpen for keeping the game close. Gonzalez Germen, Zac Rosscup and Pedro Strop threw three shutout innings, allowing just one hit and striking out four. Germen did not impress me in spring training, but in his Cubs debut he showed off some nasty breaking stuff. If he keeps that up he ought to stick around -- and maybe it's time to ship Brian Schlitter back to Iowa and get another position player back on the team.
Now, here's something I noticed during this game -- actually, something I've noticed all year. For the last several years, CSN Chicago has put "CUBS" in its scorebox instead of the more generic "CHC" that you see on many of the Cubs' opponents' broadcasts. WGN-TV has done this, too, and so is ABC-7 this year. It makes the broadcast have a little more "home" feel to it. But this year so far, CSN has used "CHC." I wondered if maybe that was some sort of mandate from CSN's corporate overlords, but I watched some of the White Sox/Indians game earlier Wednesday and their scorebox still said "SOX," as it has for as long as CSN has used "CUBS."
Here's a CSN screenshot from the third inning of Wednesday's game, taken just before Russell got his first big-league hit:
That "CHC" has been there for the Cubs all year on CSN. It was around that time when I sent out this tweet (timestamp says 4:44 p.m. because I'm still in California -- that's Pacific time, it was sent at 6:44 Chicago time):
.@CSNChicago why does your scorebox say CHC for @Cubs this year? Always said CUBS in past years— Al Yellon (@bleedcubbieblue) April 22, 2015
Well, I think I'm going to take credit for this one because they changed it mid-game. Here's a screenshot of Bryant making his center-field catch in the eighth:
Hey, what can I say. I worked in TV for 30 years and got paid to notice this kind of thing. Based on this screenshot (click to view; you will see it again later this morning in Heroes & Goats), looks like the seventh or eighth inning is when it was changed. Thanks to CSN for this change -- it's a small thing that makes it feel more like a "hometown" broadcast.
The Cubs still have a chance to win this four-game series with a victory in the daytime finale of this set, which will begin at 11:35 a.m. CT Thursday. Kyle Hendricks pitches for the Cubs against Pittsburgh's Jeff Locke. It'll be a contest to see which starter can look younger -- you'll see why I say that in the game preview, which will post at 10 a.m. CT. Russ La Croix will have Heroes & Goats from Wednesday night's game at 9 a.m. CT.