Thursday night's 5-4 Cubs win over the Giants was about as close as you can get to playoff baseball in a regular-season game.
The full house at Wrigley Field was energized by five Cubs runs in the first two innings. The two managers made multiple early-inning moves more characteristic of a "must-win" game than a Thursday-night game in early August. And a bullpen that had been shaky recently shut down a hot-hitting team for a thrilling one-run win.
This is what pennant-race baseball feels like, in case you'd forgotten, and it's been seven years (I don't really count 2009, as the wheels were falling off the Cubs' bus right around this time of year in that season) since there's been truly meaningful baseball at Wrigley Field in August.
Chris Heston has been a surprise Rookie-of-the-Year candidate but he didn't look like anything special in the first two innings Thursday night. He had control and command problems in the first inning, throwing 37 pitches and issuing a pair of walks and hitting Anthony Rizzo (for his major-league-leading 22nd time) to load the bases. Jorge Soler laced a single into left and the Cubs had a 2-0 lead, which they extended to 5-0 in the second on a pair of singles (one by pitcher Jason Hammel) and a three-run homer from Kyle Schwarber, his sixth. That's six for Warbird in only 79 big-league at-bats.
I still find Schwarber's defense a work in progress -- he still has trouble blocking pitches at times and has thrown out just three runners of 14 attempted steals against him -- but everyone on the team praises his hard work in working with the pitchers and on his craft behind the plate. It appears he'll become at least a capable big-league catcher, and with that bat, you can likely forgive some defensive lapses.
Hammel got through three innings having allowed just one single, but after he retired the first two hitters on ground balls in the fourth, a Hunter Pence double and Brandon Belt homer made it 5-2. Hammel walked the first two hitters he faced in the fifth, and then Joe Maddon came to get him, despite Hammel having thrown only 76 pitches. Why?
#Cubs Maddon pulled Hammel when he did because said he had great velocity/stuff but "the command was not there tonight"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 7, 2015
More #Cubs Maddon on Hammel: "It's not a lack of confidence by any means, it's just the moment."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 7, 2015
You can't argue with that logic, but this is the kind of move a manager would make in a postseason game. Maddon clearly feels a sense of urgency about this series and has obviously been through many series and games comparable to this one during his last few years with the Rays. I have a high degree of trust in him, and so, apparently, does Hammel:
#Cubs Hammel: "As a competitor, I want to be out there and clean up my own mess ... I was able to talk to Joe and we're on the same page."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 7, 2015
Justin Grimm put out that fire, but Tommy Hunter also allowed a two-run homer in the sixth to make it 5-4 and ratchet up the tension in a Wrigley Field highly populated by orange-and-black-clad Giants fans, a loud minority. The Cubs couldn't do much offensively after the outburst over the first two innings; they had just three singles and two walks the rest of the way and got just two runners past first base.
That's where Maddon's new late-inning triumvirate of Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon really shined. Perhaps the mixing-and-matching of the last month or so with seventh, eighth and ninth-inning relievers has finally settled into a predictable pattern. Motte, who had thrown 24 pitches just one night earlier, sailed through an easy 1-2-3 seventh. Strop, facing the middle of the Giants order, issued a walk to Pence but was otherwise untouched. Rondon (17th save) had an easy 12-pitch inning which included a deep fly ball to left by Buster Posey (pinch-hitting, as he was given the night off from catching, likely because there's a day game today) that was caught on the warning track.
A fair number of people, maybe 10 percent of the crowd, had left by the time Rondon got Hector Sanchez to ground to Addison Russell to end it, which wouldn't happen in a playoff game, but it is, after all, still early August and the game had run to nearly 10:30. Three hours and 22 minutes isn't long at all to sit at a baseball game when the action is as compelling as it was Thursday night.
I am a bit concerned about two Cubs who seemed a little banged up Thursday. Rizzo was hit on the foot and seemed in quite a bit of pain before he shook it off and stayed in the game, reaching base all four times with two hits, the HBP and a walk. His .405 OBP and .947 OPS both rank fourth in the National League.
Chris Coghlan ran into the pads behind the left-field bullpen chasing a ball that wound up in the seats in the seventh. He got up slowly and appeared, to me at least, to be a bit bothered by his right leg. He was lifted for pinch-hitter Matt Szczur in the bottom of the inning, which might be significant, or it might just mean that Maddon wanted a right-handed hitter to face lefty reliever Javier Lopez. Given all the machinations from both managers in this one, I'd lean toward the latter.
The win moved the Cubs back into the second wild-card position, half a game ahead of the Giants, and put them 3½ games behind the Pirates, who were idle on Thursday. The Bucs host the Dodgers this weekend, and that actually gives me some hope that the Cubs can gain some ground on that top wild-card position.
This Cubs team, despite starting four rookies and showing that inexperience at times, has gotten timely hitting and great pitching when they've needed it. There's no reason they can't make the postseason. It's nice to have that feeling back, and from what I've heard, Wrigley Field will be sold out all weekend.
Mike Leake was supposed to start Friday's game for the Giants, but:
Mike Leake scratched for tomorrow. MRI showed mild left hamstring strain. Vogelsong will start. #SFGiants— San Francisco Giants (@SFGiants) August 6, 2015
That ought to be an advantage for the Cubs with Jon Lester going this afternoon. The game preview will post at 1 p.m. CT.