Suddenly, the Cubs are a powerhouse.
They started hitting home runs in the bottom of the first inning and barely stopped all afternoon. Five Cubs-hit balls left the yard, and this time they didn't bother with the basket for all but the last one. Kris Bryant hit two of the five and the Cubs cruised to a 9-3 win over the Braves, sweeping the four-game series. It's the fourth four-game sweep by the Cubs this year, last accomplished by the pennant-winning 1945 Cubs. 1945... hmmmm.... did something else interesting happen to the Cubs that year?
I'm certainly not predicting anything, but remember when the Cubs first got to 15 games over .500 at 63-48? Joe Maddon said his next goal for them was 20 over, and it took the Cubs less than two weeks to get there, now 71-51, on a percentage pace to win 94 games.
The five home runs -- two by Bryant, one each from Dexter Fowler (leading off the first), Miguel Montero and Kyle Schwarber -- tied the season high set August 13 against the Brewers, and gave the Cubs nine in their last two games and 36 for the month of August, most in the major leagues, Sunday passing the Orioles (32) in that category.
Bryant's two homers gave him 19 for the season and 74 RBI. Only Joc Pederson (23) has more homers for a rookie, and Pederson has slumped badly of late. The 74 RBI lead all major-league rookies, and he raised his triple-slash to .262/.367/.480. The .847 OPS leads all major-league rookies. He's within reach of the Cubs' rookie home-run (25) and RBI (86) records, both set by Billy Williams in 1961 (the RBI mark was tied by Geovany Soto in 2008). Both Williams and Soto were named National League Rookie of the Year. Could Bryant match that feat?
That, of course, is not the Cubs' focus right now. It's winning games and putting more distance between them and the Giants in the wild-card race, and keeping up with the Pirates and Cardinals.
While the Cubs were bashing baseballs out of Wrigley Field, Jason Hammel was throwing his best game in over a month. He finally appears healthy after his leg injury suffered in early July, and he made just one real mistake, hit for a home run by Ryan Lavarnway, who was on the Cubs' 40-man roster for five days last December. The Braves scored another run in the fifth inning off Hammel, made possible by Chris Coghlan not being quick enough on a double-play toss to Addison Russell. I like having Coghlan's bat in the lineup (though he went 0-for-4 in this one), but he's going to have to get better at second base, because you can't have that kind of infield defense in the postseason.
Hammel completed 6⅓ good innings, allowing six hits, a walk and two runs and striking out seven, his best outing since June, and left to a warm ovation.
There was one slightly sour note in this one; Bryant got hit his second time up, after the Cubs had hit three total home runs. I don't know if that was intentional or not, but if so that was really unnecessary. Montero made Matt Wisler pay with a home run, and four batters later Wisler, who didn't really seem to know what hit him, was out of the game.
Montero had a very good day at the plate, with three walks in addition to his home run. Fowler also was hit by a pitch and walked, Anthony Rizzo singled and walked and scored twice, and Russell and Starlin Castro both singled. Russell was pulled out of the game after five innings, and that was the only real problem during this win:
Addison Russell has groin tightness. Could miss tomorrow. #Cubs— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) August 23, 2015
Hopefully, not more than that, as Russell has been hitting very well.
It rained off and on much of Sunday morning, but by noon, the sun came out and it became a gorgeous afternoon, with the wind blowing out strongly to right field. Nevertheless, the only homer that might have needed wind help was Bryant's first, an opposite-field shot. Even that ball was pretty well hit, though, and the rest of them were crushed, even Bryant's second. That one landed in the basket in center field, fortunately in front of the juniper bushes where no fan could touch the ball.
So. Since the Phillies swept the Cubs four weeks ago today, the Cubs are 19-5, likely tied with the Blue Jays for the best record in baseball since July 26 (I say "likely" because Toronto is leading the Angels at this writing, 11-5, and a win would make them 19-5 in that span). That's four and a half games better than the Cardinals since then (assuming the Cardinals hold on to their late lead in San Diego) and 2½ games better than the Pirates, pending Pittsburgh's ESPN Sunday night game against the Giants. The Cubs still do have a shot at the division title, with six games left against the Cardinals, and also to pass the Pirates into the top wild-card spot, with seven games left against them.
First, however, the last of 17 straight games the Cubs have had within the city of Chicago over the last two and a half weeks will happen Monday afternoon as the Indians stop in town to make up the rainout from June 15. Jon Lester faces Corey Kluber. The Cubs are 13-3 over the first 16 games of this Chicagofest. Let's hope that becomes 14-3 by this time tomorrow, shall we?