Anthony Rizzo is the acknowledged leader of the Cubs, both by his performance and his now-veteran status in the clubhouse.
For the last four games, he's put the entire team on his back (figuratively, of course) and helped lead them to victory. His three-run homer would have been enough by itself for the Cubs' win over the Brewers, which finished with a 4-2 score, but take a look at his overall numbers over those four games: 8-for-15 with a double, four home runs and nine RBI. The home run Saturday, his 20th, gave him a unique spot in Cubs history:
Anthony Rizzo has the first 20+ HR & 20+ HBP season in #Cubs history— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 2, 2015
There have been just 31 seasons like that in major-league history. Craig Biggio did it four times and Don Baylor and Chase Utley three each. Rizzo claims he's not trying to get hit, but his stance so close to the plate more or less invites it. The stance clearly helps him turn on inside pitches, too. With 20 homers in 103 games, he's on pace for 31, one short of his career high set last year.
Before Rizzo's homer, though, there was a very important at-bat by Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber fouled off six straight Matt Garza offerings before he singled. Did that bother Garza? Maybe, because he then walked Chris Coghlan before Rizzo's homer. We know Garza well enough to know that he can indeed get rattled. The Cubs had a very efficient offense Saturday night, scoring four runs on only five hits, plus five walks, the sixth time since the All-Star break they've walked at least five times.
Schwarber later homered, his fourth, to complete the Cubs' scoring.
Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks was having another solid outing. The Brewers scored just once off him, and Hendricks had helped him along by hitting Ryan Braun. Otherwise Hendricks gave up just four singles and two walks, with six strikeouts, in seven solid innings.
Then it was up to the bullpen. Travis Wood and Justin Grimm pitched a scoreless eighth, with Grimm striking out Braun to end the inning, and pumping his fist as he left the field.
That left the ninth, with Hector Rondon unavailable as he had pitched in three straight games.
Joe Maddon gave the ball to Jason Motte. Uh-oh.
Adam Lind doubled into the left-center field gap to lead off the inning, and then Motte ran the count full on Khris Davis. Then this happened:
Jorge Soler's fantastic leaping grab stole a home run from Davis, which would have made the score 4-3. Lind advanced to third on the play. It was somewhat reminiscent of this catch made by Reed Johnson in Miller Park more than six years ago:
Anyway, after Davis' drive, Maddon had seen enough of Motte. Personally, I thought Tommy Hunter should have been in the game from the beginning of the ninth inning, but Maddon held him back. Fortunately, Hunter brought his "A" game -- and a fastball that touched 99 miles per hour -- for this appearance, his first as a Cub. Hunter's appearance lasted three pitches. The first pitch resulted in a groundout by Jean Segura that scored Lind. Two pitches later, Hernan Perez lofted a much more gentle fly ball to Soler that ended the game, Hunter's first save in over a year.
Just as Maddon did earlier this year with Rondon, I think it's time for him to move Motte to lower-leverage situations. Motte did all right for a while, but now he appears to be in a midseason funk of some sort. Since the Cubs now have Pedro Strop, Hunter and Rondon to finish off the last three innings, Motte can be moved to middle relief. It's nice to have better bullpen options, isn't it?
The Cubs are once again at their high point of the season, nine games over .500. They have not been 10 games over .500 since the last day of the terrific 2008 regular season, when they finished 97-64, 33 games over. Coincidentally, 2008 was the last time the Cubs swept the Brewers in a four-game series at Miller Park. If you remember the setup to that series, the Brewers were fighting the Cubs for first place in the N.L. Central at the time -- that set began with Milwaukee just one game behind. When it was over the Cubs had a five-game lead and the Brewers knew they were fighting for a wild card. That sweep was part of a 25-6 run that moved the Cubs from 60-44 to 85-50.
These Brewers aren't anywhere near playoff contention and have been depleted by trade of several of their players over the last 10 days. These Cubs aren't as good as their 2008 counterparts, but they do seem poised to begin making a run of wins. They can sweep this series Sunday afternoon. They'll call on Clayton Richard to do so; I'm skeptical of his abilities but perhaps he's got one good start in him before he heads back to Triple-A Iowa. He'll be facing Kyle Lohse, who by at least one measure (ERA+) is the worst starting pitcher in the major leagues this year. Perhaps that will wake up Cubs bats; Lohse has allowed 24 homers this year, fourth-most of any pitcher. Perhaps Rizzo can extend his homer streak to five games. That would tie the team record for such things, which was set by Hack Wilson in 1928 and tied by Ryne Sandberg in 1989 and Sammy Sosa in 1998.
These are the games teams headed to the postseason ought to win. The Cubs still trail the Giants, who won in 11 innings Saturday night, by one game for the second wild-card spot. It's August and playoff races are heating up. This is a whole lot more fun than the last five years, that's for sure. Go Cubs.