Who needs Kris Bryant when you have Jonathan Herrera? Now, stop the steam coming out of your ears -- of course the Cubs need Bryant, and I expect he'll start hitting again soon after getting a breather Thursday afternoon.
But his replacement, Herrera, took full advantage of getting a rare start. He drove in the Cubs' first run with a beautifully-placed safety squeeze bunt in the second inning and in the sixth, hit his first home run since July 7, 2013 (and just the eighth of his career in over 1,100 at-bats). That two-run shot gave the Cubs some breathing room and Miguel Montero added another homer, his 10th, and the Cubs beat the Mets 6-1, sweeping not only this three-game series but the entire season series between the two teams. It was also the Cubs' ninth straight win over the Mets dating back to last year.
There's no real rivalry between the Cubs and Mets now that they aren't in the same division and haven't competed for the same playoff berth since the 1980s. But for those of us "of a certain age," beating the Mets that many times still feels very, very good.
It's the first time in baseball's "modern" age (post-1900) that the Cubs swept an entire season series of seven or more games. Baseball historian Ed Hartig says that the Cubs went 10-0 against Cincinnati in 1876 and 16-0 against Buffalo in 1885, the latter an MLB record for the most wins without a loss against any team.
The home runs were a welcome sight. The Cubs hadn't homered in their last eight games, during which they scored just 10 total runs, managing to go 3-5 in those games thanks to strong pitching.
They had that again Thursday afternoon from Jake Arrieta, who now seems ticketed to the All-Star Game. Arrieta threw eight strong innings, allowing just five hits and a run. He didn't walk anyone, struck out seven and threw 67 strikes in 98 pitches. Basically, he was dealing all afternoon and over his last three starts, he's thrown 24 innings, allowed 12 hits and two walks and struck out 21. He lowered his ERA to 2.80 and his WHIP to 1.028. The latter figure ranks eighth in the National League, just behind Matt Harvey and just ahead of Clayton Kershaw, pretty good company.
The Cubs might have turned the tide in this game in the first inning, when Daniel Murphy singled with two out. Montero appeared to have him picked off, but first-base umpire Cory Blaser signaled "safe." Here's the play:
Anthony Rizzo, such a smart player. He showed it Wednesday night on the basepaths and here, he shows it again with his foot blocking the way from Murphy's hand touching first base. You can see him applying the tag just before Murphy gets his hand back in; it didn't take long for the call to be overturned.
Rizzo and Addison Russell also made nice defensive plays later in the game to back up Arrieta.
You could have almost predicted Herrera's homer, in a way. Mets manager Terry Collins left Jacob deGrom in far past where he probably should have; this was the first time deGrom had thrown more than 109 pitches all year. He was clearly tiring when both Mike Baxter and Chris Denorfia worked six-pitch at-bats off him before Herrera came to the plate, Baxter with a single and Denorfia with a fly to center. Then Herrera worked the count full and had seven pitches when deGrom grooved the eighth one. The ball just barely made it over the wall in right-center, but hey, a homer's a homer!
We'll take that, of course. The Mets have been struggling offensively for longer than just this week, but I'd like to give some credit to Cubs pitching for shutting them down during this series. Cubs pitchers threw 29 innings in this series, allowed 15 hits and three walks and struck out 31 while allowing just one run, an outstanding performance. In sweeping the Mets in the season series, the Cubs outscored them 27-11. Travis Wood finished up this one with an efficient seven-pitch ninth.
When the Cubs departed on this road trip, they were seven games over .500 and 8½ games out of first place. They return home seven games over .500 and no worse then 9½ games behind the Cardinals, depending on what St. Louis does Thursday night against the Padres. The Marlins beat the Giants again, so the Cubs now lead for the second wild-card spot by 1½ games (and three in the loss column, and no, it's not too early to start tracking that). In addition, the Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates and Giants are the only four National League teams with winning road records.
So now the Cubs come home to Wrigley Field for the first meaningful July homestand in six years, 10 games against the Marlins (three), Cardinals (four, including the rainout-makeup game from April 7) and White Sox (three). It's time to start beating the lesser teams, and also to show the Cardinals that the Cubs can play right with them. The place ought to be rocking. 'Bout time.
Jason Hammel faces Tom Koehler in a 1:20 start Friday afternoon.