At 17-5, the Cubs remained 3½ games in front in the National League Central.
The Cubs broke open a tight game with a five-run eighth and defeated the Braves 6-1, highlighted by Matt Szczur's first career grand slam (and Cubs security tracked down the bleacher fan who caught the ball, and I presume it was exchanged for some Cubs swag).
Szczur was only in the game for defensive purposes, having replaced Jorge Soler in left field in the top of the inning, a wise move in a 1-1 tie. He might not even have come to bat in the bottom of the eighth except for an extended Cubs rally that started with a pinch-double by Tommy La Stella. TLS has taken very well to his bench role. He's now 3-for-5 with a walk this year as a pinch-hitter, and two of the three hits are doubles.
Dexter Fowler tried to sacrifice TLS to third, but Braves pitcher Jim Johnson made a nice play and threw La Stella out. You could see the frustration in Fowler as he stood on first base. But Jason Heyward walked and Ben Zobrist loaded the bases with a single. That brought Anthony Rizzo to the plate:
As it turned out, that hit, scoring Fowler, would have been enough to win the game. But Szczur was up next:
Just look at Szczur's face as he rounds the bases. As happy as all the fans in Wrigley Field were at that moment, the Villanova product had to be just ecstatic. I'm really happy for him. He's worked very hard to get to this place on this team, and he's produced when he's been asked to. Like TLS, he is a valuable bench player on this ballclub. The wind had died down just enough for that ball to reach the seats. A couple of innings earlier, it might have been knocked down.
Hector Rondon, who had been warming up through the eighth, came in to pitch anyway, as with the Cubs winning games by big margins, he's had little work. Having not pitched since Tuesday, Hector dispatched the Braves 1-2-3 in the ninth to end it, striking out one. He still hasn't allowed a walk nor a run this year, and just two baserunners in seven innings, with 12 strikeouts. That's 12 K's in 23 batters faced, if you're keeping track of such things. And, his quick ninth (just six pitches) helped the game end in over an hour's less time than Thursday's marathon. Friday's game time of 2:38 tied the quickest home game time so far this year.
The game was scoreless until Freddie Freeman homered to lead off the fourth inning off Jon Lester. That's news in and of itself; it's just the fifth home run the Braves have hit as a team in 23 games. The next lowest homer count by any team is 15, and 36 different players have at least five home runs this year.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were hitless off Aaron Blair until Javier Baez laced a double down the left-field line leading off the fifth. He scored on a single by David Ross, who nearly drove in a couple more runs in the seventh; his ground ball was just a couple of feet from getting through, instead it was turned into an inning-ending double play. Kris Bryant, who didn't start this game due a mild ankle sprain, was on deck to bat for Lester when this inning ended, so clearly he can at least do that.
Lester was sharp despite allowing seven hits in seven innings. He struck out 10, which gives him 33 K's in 34⅓ innings. Two of those strikeouts were key, in the seventh inning after a single, a walk and another misplay in the field by Lester loaded the bases with nobody out. Lester struck out Drew Stubbs and pinch-hitter Jace Peterson before getting Nick Markakis to ground to first to end the inning.
Since the Cubs won the game I won't make a big deal out of Lester's misadventures in the field. I'll simply post this:
#Cubs Lester on 7th inning play: "I never had a handle on it"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 29, 2016
Well, I guess. Fortunately, it had no effect on the Cubs winning this game. With the win, the Cubs' 17th in April, they tied the franchise record for wins in the month, set in 2008, so they can break this mark with a win on Saturday. They also increased their run differential to +84, which is three better than the 2015 Cubs had for the entire season (+81) and, pending Friday night's action, is 39 runs better than anyone else (Cardinals are +45). Want more? 84 runs is more than 11 other teams have scored so far this year.
Cubs walk watch: Seven more bases on balls Friday (one intentional) brought the Cubs' season total to 121, an average of 5.5 per game. Pace: 891. Cubs team record: 650 in 1975. N.L. record: 732 (1947 Dodgers). Major-league record: 835 (1949 Red Sox).
We are all witnessing things that have not happened for the Chicago National League Ball Club in over a century, if ever. Savor every moment. I certainly am.
It was cold and breezy again at Wrigley Field, I suppose we got this week of nasty weather as payback for the nice week during the Cubs' first homestand earlier this month.