For most of this afternoon, this recap was going to be all about Jon Lester, who came off a poor outing against the Detroit Tigers to have one of his best starts of 2015.
Instead, we're here celebrating Kris Bryant, who launched his 20th home run into the right-field bleachers, backed by a strong west wind, for his second walkoff homer of the season. The Cubs' 2-1 win over the Indians was their major-league-leading 12th walkoff win of the season and raised their record in one-run games to 28-17.
It was also the team's fifth consecutive victory (and they now have five different winning streaks this year of at least five games), raising their season record to 72-51, a season-high 21 games over .500. It ended a run of 17 straight games played in the city of Chicago (including the three against the White Sox at the Cell) with a 14-3 mark.
Now look at those two paragraphs again and tell me you imagined, four and a half months ago when the season began, that this sort of thing would be happening. You can't, because you weren't. I wasn't. None of us were. This remarkable run of baseball almost defies superlatives. Every time you think the Cubs can't top what they did the previous day, they do.
We all knew this game would be a tough one with Indians ace Corey Kluber on the mound, and it indeed turned into a pitchers' duel. Kluber appeared to have given up a home run to David Ross in the third inning -- and I have to say it looked from my vantage point as if it were a fair ball -- but review showed it clearly left the park to the foul side of the foul pole:
(That's the Cleveland TV broadcast -- I don't think they had as good an angle as the WGN crew had, and you can hear the Tribe announcers saying they got a better view of it on the Wrigley video boards than on their monitors.)
Kluber wound up striking out Ross, one of 11 K's he had on the afternoon, and retired the first 16 Cubs he faced until Ross, batting again with one out in the sixth, singled sharply to left. Lester sacrificed him to second, but there he stood when Dexter Fowler popped to short center. Lester later had another sacrifice bunt, giving him five for the season. (All other Cubs pitchers combined have eight.)
Meanwhile, Lester was getting help from his defense. He hit Carlos Santana in the second -- double play. He allowed a single to Giovanny Urshela in the third -- double play, and neatly turned when Anthony Rizzo let a bunt drop and both runners were retired. He allowed a single and a walk in the fourth, but after a fly to center, another DP ended the inning. A fourth double play got him out of the seventh.
The Cubs finally broke through in the seventh when Chris Coghlan lined a double into the left-field corner, and Rizzo lofted a ball toward the right-field foul line that Jerry Sands tried to dive for. It got by him, and Rizzo wound up on third with a triple; Coghlan scored easily.
The resulting 1-0 score looked like it might hold up. The Cubs got a runner to second with two out in the eighth, but there he was stranded.
Lester hit pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn on the first pitch he threw in the ninth. A single and two strikeouts later, Lester was two strikes away from throwing "a Maddux" (a complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches). Unfortunately, Lester's 97th pitch was laced into left field by Santana for an RBI single that tied the game. Kyle Schwarber was still in left field, and I don't know whether having Chris Denorfia out there instead would have given a chance to throw out pinch-runner Abraham Almonte at the plate. But I did wonder why Schwarber, who had struck out in the eighth, wasn't replaced defensively. Joe Maddon did replace Tommy La Stella (Look! He really exists!) at second base in the ninth with Jonathan Herrera.
The game appeared headed for extra innings after reliever Zach McAllister struck out Coghlan and Rizzo. Rizzo battled McAllister through an 11-pitch at-bat, fouling off five 95-plus fastballs, before striking out on a foul tip.
For some reason, McAllister decided to start Bryant out with a breaking pitch, he hung a curveball, and Bryant crushed it. I know you'd like to see it again (or for the first time if you haven't yet), so here it is:
Funny thing. On a day when the wind was howling out to right field, that was the only long ball of the afternoon, a glorious sunny Monday that was a reminder of how Wrigley baseball used to be, a real throwback-type game dominated by pitching, with the scoreboard showing all night games elsewhere and a crowd into the game, as most crowds have been lately with the team winning and in contention. The game might have finished in about 2:15 if Lester had been able to retire Santana; even the actual time of 2:38 was the fastest since Lester's 14-strikeout game against the Rockies July 29.
Kudos to Lester, who really did pitch like an "ace" Monday afternoon. It was the first time he had pitched in the ninth inning this year, and the Cubs surely will need more outings like this from him going down the stretch.
The Cubs finish the year 2-2 against the Tribe and are 9-10 in interleague play with one game remaining, the makeup of another rainout against the Royals, which will be this year's final regular-season home game, Monday, September 28.
So here's where we stand. Pending Monday night's action (Pirates at Marlins, Cardinals at Diamondbacks), the Cubs are 2½ games behind the Pirates and six behind the Cardinals (Go Marlins! Go Diamondbacks!). They increased their lead over the idle Giants for the second wild card to 6½ games, and of course they begin a key road trip against the Giants in San Francisco and Dodgers in Los Angeles beginning Tuesday night. West Coast trips have been rough on the Cubs in past seasons, but I have confidence that Joe Maddon will strike the right tone in the clubhouse and this bunch will be able to handle it. The Cubs are 4-0 against the Giants and 2-2 against the Dodgers so far this year, and the road trip begins Tuesday night with Jake Arrieta against Matt Cain.
What an awesome time to be a Cubs fan. Hang on, because this is going to be one wild ride the rest of this season.