When Theo Epstein was hired as President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs in 2011, one of the first things he said at his introductory news conference was, "Baseball is better when you win."
Damn straight, Theo. Damn straight.
Perhaps a bit ahead of Theo's own schedule, this year's Cubs have been clicking on all cylinders lately, playing their best baseball of the year and solidifying their hold on the second wild-card spot with a 7-3 win over the Giants, a win that highlighted good pitching (both starting and relief) and timely hitting. More than that, the sellout throng at Wrigley Field was treated to a graduate-level course in baseball managing from Joe Maddon and Bruce Bochy and I can't reiterate enough how great it is to have an unconventional mind in Maddon managing the Cubs. More on that anon.
The teams battled evenly for the first four innings, the Cubs plating a run in the first on a double by Kyle Schwarber and single by Chris Coghlan. But the Giants tied it up when the wind took a ball out of the reach of Jorge Soler in right field. Buster Posey's popup, which on an ordinary day would have been an ordinary catch, dropped untouched for a double. I won't blame Soler for that one -- both the sun and wind were very difficult Friday afternoon and even a more experienced right fielder would have had trouble with that one.
Ryan Vogelsong, pressed into service when Mike Leake hit the disabled list with hamstring issues, hamstrung the Cubs' offense through four. After the first inning, no Cubs runner made it past first base, until the fifth, when a rapidly-mounting pitch count did Vogelsong in. A single and a double put runners on second and third and Bochy decided he'd had enough of Vogelsong, who's been hit hard by lefthanded batters this year. So, he called on Jeremy Affeldt to face the three straight lefty hitters in the Cubs lineup, Schwarber, Coghlan and Anthony Rizzo.
Schwarber singled in two runs, but then Affelt got Coghlan and Rizzo to ground to first. It was a bit of a surprise to see Affelt left in to face Kris Bryant, who walked on four pitches, a seeming "unintentional-intentional" walk. Yusmeiro Petit was summoned to face Soler, who slammed a double into left-center, scoring two more runs. David Ross completed the Cubs' five-run fifth with a single. That was excellent situational hitting and Bochy might have out-thought himself a bit too much.
Meanwhile, Jon Lester was still mowing down Giants hitters through the sixth, helped by a double play in that sixth inning, but he got into trouble in the seventh with a walk, another pop-fly hit by Posey, and an RBI single by Hunter Pence. Then, Lester got Brandon Crawford to hit a comebacker.
This has been stated before, by me and others, but for an elite athlete, Lester is a very odd man. He doesn't seem to be able to do anything on a baseball field except pitch balls to the plate very well. Hitting? Nope. Bunting? Apart from that three-sac game a week ago, nope. Fielding? Lester nearly threw an easy DP ball into center field; it was saved by Addison Russell, who managed to turn a double play. Bochy challenged the call at second, and it was "call stands" as Russell's foot seemed to be just on the base while he had the ball, before it came off:
That was great footwork and a great recovery by Russell. The Cubs won another review in the eighth. A Nori Aoki home run had made it 6-3 and a single by Angel Pagan off Tommy Hunter put the tying run on deck, and Kelby Tomlinson bounced one over Rizzo's head. Jonathan Herrera, who had taken over for Coghlan at second, threw to Hunter covering, but the call was overturned on review:
Nice footwork, again, this time by Hunter to make that play.
That's when Maddon decided to go for a multi-inning save opportunity for Hector Rondon. This doesn't mean Rondon is now an eighth-inning pitcher again; it means that Maddon identified this as the highest-leverage situation likely to remain in the game, so he brought in his best reliever. That's the way I think managers ought to view these types of situations, and Rondon rose to the occasion, striking out Matt Duffy and getting Posey to ground to Russell.
Dexter Fowler made it 7-3 with a two-out homer in the eighth. Fowler went 3-for-5 and pushed his batting average back to the .240 mark. Now, if Maddon had called on another reliever, it's no longer a save situation, so he left Rondon in to face Pence, Crawford and Brandon Belt. Pence walked, but Rondon took care of the next three hitters to complete his 18th save. The downside of using Rondon this way is that after 12 pitches Thursday night and 25 Friday, he's probably not available for Saturday's game. Perhaps the Cubs can take care of that by winning a blowout. That'd be nice, right?
It's been so long since we have had games and series like this at Wrigley that it feels unusual, something new, something invigorating to have this sort of tension and excitement. This is, of course, a very good thing and it brings the entire crowd into the game. Very few left the ballpark on a gorgeous afternoon before this one was over, and though there was again a significant number of orange-clad Giants fans scattered around the park (mostly in the left-field corner, for some reason), they were mostly silent as their team didn't have much to cheer for.
We, on the other hand, did. And baseball is absolutely better when you win. The win was the Cubs' 60th of the season, exactly at the two-thirds mark, so they are officially "on pace" to win 90, with a 60-48 record. Last year, the Cubs' 60th win came in their 134th game, at 60-74. This is better. Way better. This is also the first time since the 9-8 walkoff over the Rockies, 10 games ago, that the Cubs had scored seven or more runs.
The Cubs increased their second wild-card lead to 1½ games over the Giants. If the Dodgers can defeat the Pirates (their game was in progress at this writing), the Cubs would pull to within 2½ games of Pittsburgh for the top wild-card spot.
And, the Cubs have a chance to win this series Saturday afternoon, when Kyle Hendricks will take the mound against the Giants' Matt Cain.
Finally, I met for the first time this afternoon BCBer ernaga, who joined us in the bleachers. He told me he hadn't been in the Wrigley bleachers since 1979, and not only was I glad to meet him, I was glad he was able to see such a great game. You have undoubtedly seen this Wrigley photo, taken May 14, 1950 here before -- I've used it in several posts. ernaga gave me an 8x10 printed copy of this photo, a very nice gift, and I thanked him then, and thank him again publicly for that kind gesture.
Winning is fun. I expect the biggest crowd of 2015 at Wrigley Saturday afternoon. Let's keep it going.