With a big lead going into the ninth, Joe Maddon went to some of his "lesser" relievers to finish this one out, and they almost didn't. Hector Rondon had gone the last two days and threw 25 pitches the day before, so he wasn't available.
They did hang on, and won their ninth game in their last 10. At 61-48, they moved 2½ games ahead of the Giants for the second wild card spot. Once again, the Cardinals and Pirates also won, so the Cubs remained 9½ games behind the first-place Cardinals and three in back of the second-place Pirates.
The door to the complaint department is open just a tiny, tiny bit, and I'll get to that, but first let's talk about the good stuff in the Cubs' 8-6 win over the Giants. It was their third win in three tries against the Giants, winning the series, and in addition to nine of 10, the Cubs have now won 10 of 12 since that sweep at the hands of the Phillies two weeks ago.
The Cubs got on the board early against Matt Cain, who used to dominate Cubs teams but now is still coming back from elbow surgery and likely trying to make the transition from power pitcher to finesse guy. He was all over the place in the first, hitting Kyle Schwarber and issuing a walk. Kris Bryant bounced into a run-scoring force play and the Cubs had a 1-0 lead. It didn't last long because Brandon Belt lofted a fly ball that just barely made the right-center field basket (Belt Boulevard?) with a runner on to make the score 2-1 Giants, a hit that woke up the quiescent Giants fans still very much in evidence at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon.
After that it was all Cubs, offensively at least. Bryant hit a two-run homer in the third that gave the Cubs the lead they never relinquished, a blast that missed hitting the left-field video board by only four or five rows. Meanwhile, Hendricks settled down and though he gave up a run in the fourth and eventually had to be lifted after a pair of one-out singles in the sixth, he had another reasonably effective outing. Joe Maddon had praise for Bryant after the game:
#Cubs Maddon on Bryant: "He's a good baseball player. That's what I don't want to get overlooked by all of this. ... MORE— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 9, 2015
Maddon on KB: "People are looking at his batting average, his numbers. He's one of the better young baseball players I've had. Period" #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 9, 2015
Exactly right, Joe.
The Cubs added another pair of runs in the fifth and could have had more. Bryant walked Jorge Soler singled, after which Miguel Montero singled Bryant in. Hendricks came to bat and hit into a double play -- credit Brandon Crawford with an outstanding play that stopped Hendricks' ball from being an RBI single. He made a diving stop, forced Montero at second and threw out Hendricks for a double play. It was one of a couple of really good plays by Crawford in this game. He's really, really good at shortstop.
So is Addison Russell, who had three hits Saturday including a pair of doubles. The hit he had in the eighth, an RBI single after a leadoff walk by Montero and a groundout that advanced Miggy to second, turned out to be very important. After Travis Wood and Pedro Strop threw 2⅔ innings of scoreless relief, the Cubs tacked on three runs in the eighth, which included a double by Dexter Fowler and Schwarber's second hit of the day. An 8-3 lead seemed quite comfortable.
Personally? I think I might have left Strop in to throw another inning. Maddon had double-switched Chris Denorfia into the game and so the pitcher's spot never came to bat in the eighth. Yes, I know I go back and forth on the two-inning relief appearance, and some pitchers just aren't prepared to go more than one. Strop was lights-out and had thrown just 11 pitches. But with a five-run lead, what could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. James Russell faced three hitters and all of them hit the ball hard. He did record one out, but then gave up a single and a double, scoring a run and bringing Maddon out to put Jason Motte in the game to face pinch-hitter Gregor Blanco.
Blanco hit a deep fly ball to Fowler. Two out. Easy, right?
Nope. Motte's fastball is still flat. Angel Pagan singled in a run, then took second on defensive indifference and scored an a single by Nori Aoki.
That brought Maddon out again, forced to use Justin Grimm because Hector Rondon wasn't available.
Fortunately, Grimm got Matt Duffy to ground to short to end it. But bullpen failure made Maddon use three relievers in a ninth inning the Cubs entered with a five-run lead. I'm not sure what happened to Russell, who's been pretty reliable this year, but the Cubs are going to have to figure out what to do with Motte, who has allowed seven runs in his last eight appearances covering 5⅔ innings. That's an ERA of 11.12 and 11 hits and just five strikeouts over that span. That sort of screams out, "He's hurt!" to me.
So there's the complaint department for the day.
But the Cubs won, which is the important thing, and in front of a loud sellout (41,305) that was once again really into the game. Very few left the ballpark until after the Cubs' eighth-inning rally, and the weather (which could turn iffy on Sunday) cooperated, with clouds preventing the usual 3:05 game shadow problems and a light breeze blowing in. The atmosphere at the ballpark is starting to feel like it felt in 1984, or 1998, or 2003, or 2007, when the Cubs started to turn things on just around this time of year. (2008 was different because that team dominated from fairly early on.) I like this better than the last three years, for sure.
The Cubs increased their second wild-card lead over the Giants to 2½ games and remained 3½ games behind the Pirates, as they held on to win their afternoon contest against the Dodgers. The Cubs go for the series sweep Sunday with a favorable pitching matchup: Jake Arrieta against Jake Peavy. And in case you were wondering:
Maddon says Russell will start at shortstop on Sunday in series finale. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 9, 2015
We might have seen the last of Starlin Castro as a starter for a while. Maddon tends to go with the hot hand, and a combination that's winning, and who am I to argue?
This is great fun. Let's keep it going.