In the first three years of the Theo Epstein regime on the North Side, the Cubs' stolen-base totals were 94 (2012), 63 (2013) and 65 (2014), and the 2012 total was that "high" (they ranked 11th in the National League) only because of the wild baserunning antics of Tony Campana, who stole 30 bases and was caught just three times. The last two years, the Cubs' leading basestealer was a player who did not finish the year with the team (2013, Alfonso Soriano with 10; 2014, Emilio Bonifacio with 14).
That's going to be different this year, I'm certain, despite the fact that the 2015 Cubs have only one player who you'd really consider a "legitimate" base-stealer, Dexter Fowler. The Cubs stole five bases Tuesday night, four of those in one inning (the latter, for the first time since August 23, 1997 against the Expos) and cruised to their fourth straight victory, 6-2 over the Pirates, winning another series.
Here's what Joe Maddon thinks about stealing bases:
#Cubs Maddon: "There's a lot of 'want to' in stealing bases. There's that musketeer, cavalier kind of an attitude that's necessary"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 29, 2015
And that's exactly what the Cubs are doing, particularly Anthony Rizzo, who matched his career high with his sixth steal. He hasn't been caught yet. In fact, the Cubs are picking their spots extremely well for stealing bases, with a team total of 25 with just six caught stealing (80.6 percent success rate). The 25 steals leads the National League. The last time a Cubs team led the N.L. in steals was 1939 with 61 -- in an era when stolen bases meant almost nothing. Stan Hack stole 17 of those bases -- that led the league. No one else on the Cubs had more than nine that year.
I'm not saying they will lead the league in 2015, only that it's been a very long time since any Cubs team used stolen bases as a significant offensive weapon. There's no doubt they will this year. If the Cubs continue this pace of stealing -- I wouldn't necessarily expect it, but if they do, they will steal 213 bases, which would be the team record, by a lot (current record: 182 in 1985). And in case you are wondering, the most steals in a year with no caught stealing is 23, by Chase Utley in 2009.
The steals helped generate a pair of runs in the fourth inning, but that was after the Cubs had taken a 3-0 lead in the second, all the runs scoring after two were out. Addison Russell laced an RBI double down the left-field line and then Fowler singled in a pair. The Cubs scored another run after two were out and no one on base in the third. When's the last time you can remember a Cubs team scoring six runs in a game, all after two were out? Yeah, I can't either.
Meanwhile, Travis Wood was mowing down Pirates, without walking a batter and striking out nine. The only Pirate who reached in the first three innings did so on a Starlin Castro error, and I certainly won't be too down on Starlin today, because he made several other nice fielding plays and also went 3-for-5 and drove in a run. Wood made only one real mistake, allowing a two-out, two-run homer to Starling Marte in the fourth that briefly cut the Cubs' lead to a two runs before they got the two runs back in the bottom of the inning. Wood could probably have gone another inning, having thrown only 90 pitches (62 strikes), but Maddon mixed up his bullpen usage, having Zac Rosscup and Jason Motte both throw. Both had uneventful scoreless innings. Pedro Strop, who threw Monday night, warmed up briefly in the eighth, which puzzled me -- why bring Strop back on back-to-back nights with a four-run lead? -- but he quickly sat down and Motte finished up.
The other significant thing that happened Tuesday night was three challenges from Maddon, who had gone 0-for-5 in challenges so far this year. The first was on an apparent infield hit by Castro in the third inning; the replay shown on the Wrigley video board was pretty obvious and the umpires and replay officials took very little time before reversing the call. They also reversed a safe call made in the sixth after Corey Hart overran third base on a single by Marte. Kris Bryant appeared to tag him but umpire Lance Barrett called him safe. Replays showed Bryant's glove on Hart just before his foot came down on the bag and again, the replay crew didn't take much time overturning the safe call.
The Cubs "lost" a challenge (or, more correctly, a "review request," since challenges officially end after the sixth inning) in the eighth when Castro tried to steal the Cubs' sixth base of the night; the play was very close and replay officials ruled that the call stood. The replays shown on the video board were indeed inconclusive on that one; one angle appeared to show Castro out, another possibly safe, but not with enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. The reviews Tuesday night worked exactly the way the system is supposed to and didn't take up too much time.
Other Cubs good offensive performances of note: Fowler had three hits and a stolen base (his sixth) and Junior Lake, making his 2015 big-league debut, singled and doubled.
It was just about as chilly temperature-wise Tuesday as Monday, but with much less wind it felt somewhat more comfortable at the ballpark. It's supposed to get steadily milder with each day this week, so perhaps Jorge Soler, who walked twice Tuesday night, can get untracked and start hitting home runs again. We're also still waiting for Bryant's first major-league homer, though you certainly can't complain about his .341/.471/.439 start in his first 51 plate appearances.
The Cubs are now five games over .500 for the first time since the final day of the 2009 season. They finished five games over that year, and that was with a loss on the last day, so they can match their last "six games over" day, October 3, 2009, with a win Wednesday night. Sweeping a series is never easy, and particularly won't be in this set with the Pirates' top pitcher, Gerrit Cole, going, but this Cubs team seems to find ways to win.
I could get real used to this, couldn't you? Kyle Hendricks will go for the Cubs in the series finale at 7:05 CT tonight.