Cubs bats were silent for much of this game, as they had been for most of the previous week or so.
And then, suddenly, Anthony Rizzo pulled them out of that. This win, the Cubs' second in a row, put them at 54-47, still 10½ games behind the Cardinals. They gained half a game on both the Pirates and Giants, trailing Pittsburgh by five games and, for the second wild-card spot, they remained two behind the Giants.
Sitting watching Thursday night's game felt like so many others this summer. Slow. Dull. Three-up-three-down boring as the Cubs failed to generate any offense over the first seven innings. Anthony Rizzo, in fact, was pretty much the entire offense for that time, apart from a couple of walks. He doubled leading off the second, but was stranded. Then he singled in the seventh, same result.
Then, suddenly, it all changed, and nearly as quickly as the time it's taken you to read this far into the recap. Jimmy Nelson, who had shut down the Cubs for seven innings, was removed for a pinch-hitter after 104 pitches. Jeremy Jeffress entered to start the eighth.
Addison Russell singled. Dexter Fowler singled. Brewers manager Craig Counsell -- and I swear, looking at shots of him in the dugout, he looks like he's about 14 years old -- lifted Jeffress for lefthander Will Smith to face Kyle Schwarber, who he struck out. Chris Denorfia flied to left and it looked like another failed Cubs rally.
Fortunately, Rizzo has hit lefthanders better than righthanders this year (.935 OPS vs. LHP, .900 OPS vs. RHP). He hit Smith's third pitch into the second deck in right field and the Cubs had a 3-2 lead.
You'd be correct if you still worried after this, because bullpen work has been shaky recently. But Pedro Strop retired the Brewers in order in the eighth, helped by this spectacular play by Starlin Castro:
Credit where credit is due. That was terrific. Then Castro singled to lead off the ninth, took second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on a perfect bunt by Jonathan Herrera (who wound up safe), and scored on a sacrifice fly by Kris Bryant. The Cubs later scored another run in the inning on a single by Schwarber, and Hector Rondon posted his 14th save in a 5-2 Cubs win over the Brewers that started this seven-game trip on a positive note. The win moved the Cubs back to within two games of the second wild-card spot, as the Giants were idle Thursday. The win also clinched a winning July for the Cubs, who are 14-12 this month with one game to go. They have not had a losing record in any calendar month this year.
Let's talk a bit about Rondon, shall we? He posted 29 saves with just four blown saves in 2014, and eight of those saves were accomplished in 10 pitches or fewer. He started out 2015 well, but after a couple of bad blown saves in May, Joe Maddon removed him from the closer role in June. This, in hindsight, was almost certainly a mistake. Many excellent closers blow a save now and again. Rondon pitches efficiently and can often hit 97 miles per hour. Removing him for Jason Motte and Pedro Strop has likely cost the Cubs a couple of games they otherwise might have won.
Since the "proven closers" who were available by trade this month -- Jonathan Papelbon and Joakim Soria -- have already been traded, the Cubs probably won't be able to trade for such a pitcher, and I would argue they shouldn't. They already have one. I understand that Maddon likes to tinker and especially in his first year as manager, wants to understand who he has on his pitching staff.
In my view, he already has a "proven closer" in Rondon, and I hope from here on out he just sticks with him. Rondon has saved the last two games, throwing 15 pitches Wednesday and just six Thursday.
Rafael Soriano, who pretty much everyone here was ready to dump after a couple of failures at Wrigley earlier this week, did throw a scoreless seventh, allowing one harmless single. I suppose putting him in lower-leverage situations, for now, might work.
So... game one of the trip, mission accomplished. Here's hoping the awakening of the bats Thursday night is the beginning of a trend. Friday's matchup features Jason Hammel starting for the Cubs, Taylor Jungmann for the Brewers. We still don't know who's starting for the Cubs on Sunday; perhaps today's trade deadline will sort that out.