I don't want to make it seem as if the Cubs had it "easy" against the Braves, because no big-league game is "easy."
But in this August series, the Cubs were hot and the Braves cold, and this one wound up in the Cubs' "W" column again, moving their record to 69-51. They picked up a game on the Cardinals and trailed by 7½ in the division, and also moved to within three games of the Pirates for the top wild-card spot. They led the Giants for the second wild card by four games.
Friday's game had a good chance to go the Braves' way, as Shelby Miller is a very good pitcher and Kyle Hendricks has struggled recently.
It went to form early. Hendricks got hit hard in the first inning, managed a few strikeouts to get back on track, and then wound up giving up a pair of runs in the fourth when Kris Bryant ill-advisedly tried to get a force at second with nobody out. Pedro Ciriaco was called out on the field but review overturned it:
If Bryant goes to first on that play, the inning probably ends with Miller's at-bat and no runs; instead, Nick Markakis gave the Braves a 3-1 lead with a double to left-center.
But you know what? Good teams find ways to win games like this, and the Cubs are a good team. Miller had allowed a solo homer to Chris Coghlan in the first inning, a homer that just barely made the basket in front of the left-field ribbon board. The Cubs added an unearned run in the fifth when Ciriaco threw away a potential inning-ending double-play ball, and there was hope among the sun-kissed crowd of 39,211.
The Cubs finally solved Miller in the sixth. Anthony Rizzo took a close pitch for ball four and Kris Bryant doubled him in to tie the game. Miguel Montero followed with another double and the Cubs had a 4-3 lead. It might have been more, except pinch-hitter Jonathan Herrera followed Jorge Soler's single with an inning-ending double play.
The seventh inning saw Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez make three pitching changes, and Andrelton Simmons made a rare error (just his fourth of the season), and Rizzo then drove in the Cubs' fifth and final run of the afternoon, and the bullpen held on for a 5-3 win over the Braves, bringing the Cubs to even-up at two wins and two losses on this homestand.
Got to give real credit to the pen today. Hendricks was shaky again, though he didn't wind up with too bad a pitching line, seven hits, one walk and three runs in five innings, with seven strikeouts. That meant relief had to be good, and it was. Jason Motte, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop retired all nine batters they faced, three each, and were quite efficient about it (14 pitches for Motte, 12 for Grimm, nine for Strop, meaning they're all likely available Saturday).
Hector Rondon (22nd save) wasn't quite as sharp as usual; he allowed a one-out double to Nick Swisher, who advanced to third on a groundout. Then he had Cameron Maybin down 1-2 and decided to try another slider, which missed. A fastball missed and so Rondon went back to the slider, which went in the dirt for ball four.
So the Braves had the tying run on base and their best hitter, Freddie Freeman, at the plate. Nervous time!
Rondon got him to ground to second on the second pitch to end the game. Freeman and Simmons, to me, are the only real good players on the field for the Braves right now; they're playing with very little energy and mostly are going through the motions. It's never easy to sweep series, but the Cubs do have a real chance to do that, with guys you've probably never heard of taking the mound for the Braves the next two days. Know that I'm not predicting that, only saying that's what good teams do.
This Cubs club is a good team. A very good team. Like any baseball team it has its flaws -- Joe Maddon ran himself out of pinch-hitters and had to use David Ross, leaving him with no position players had the game gone to extra innings -- but I think this Cubs team can stack up with just about anyone. They are playing with confidence and even being behind 3-1 in the middle innings doesn't seem to bother them. They pounce on opposition mistakes.
Motte got the individual "win" and is now 8-1, which shows you just how meaningless W/L records are these days. He certainly hasn't pitched that well. The players and Maddon had a bit of fun with it:
Hendricks said Motte was "making noise" about being 8-1. Maddon said: "Got to get him out there more often, man." #Cubs— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) August 21, 2015
Nevertheless, a win is a win, and the Cubs go for three straight Saturday afternoon with Dan Haren facing Williams Perez.
Friday was "90s Day" in the bleachers, with a band playing 90s music outside the main bleacher entrance and other 90s music played on the PA (there was a lot of Smashmouth, in case you were wondering). And if you wondered why there was this look in the bleachers:
... those were green and pink neon giveaway caps, given out only in the bleachers. They were supposed to be a 90s look, though I think they were more 80s than 90s.
At this writing the Giants are leading the Pirates early-on, with Madison Bumgarner having hit his fifth home run of the season. (That's as many as Starlin Castro, if you were keeping count.) A Giants win would keep them four games behind the Cubs, but would move the Cubs to within three games of the Pirates.
It's a great time to be a Cubs fan. Let's make it three in a row tomorrow.