John Lackey has somewhat of a reputation for having early-inning struggles. He did in his first Cubs start last week, and again Wednesday, he let the first three Reds hitters reach base on two hits and a walk, leading to a run on a sacrifice fly.
The Cubs, though, immediately picked Lackey up by knocking Reds starter Alfredo Simon out before the first inning ended, getting four hits (including a single by Lackey) and three walks off him and overall seeing 57 pitches in the first inning. The five-run frame helped lead the Cubs to an easy 9-2 win over the Reds, and here's one of the facts about this game that blows me away:
10 walks by #Cubs batters matches season high— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 14, 2016
I mean... wow. We are eight games into the 2016 season and 10 walks only ties the season high? Two 10-walk games this season: That's as many double-digit-walk games as the Cubs have had in the last five seasons combined, once last year, once in 2012. Cubs teams have walked 10 or more times in a game 65 times in the divisional-play era (since 1969), averaging a little more than once per season.
And now twice already this year. 48 walks in all, averaging six walks per game. That's an impossible pace to keep up; it would mean 972 walks in a full season, which would break the team record... by over 300 (the record is 650, set in 1975). That would break the major league record, 835 by the 1949 Red Sox, by almost 150. It would break the National League record (732, 1947 Dodgers) by almost 250. I think the Cubs will get that team record -- they almost did in 2008 -- but those league records might be a bit out of reach. (Or not -- this team seems to be able to do just about anything it puts its collective mind to.)
The only Cubs starter who didn't walk was Dexter Fowler, and he made up for it by hitting a leadoff double in the first inning and later was hit by a pitch. Hey, maybe he would have walked on that at-bat, so we'll give him credit for a good evening's work.
Reds pitchers threw 97 pitches... in the first three innings. At one point they had thrown, combined, 70 more pitches than Lackey did by himself. Reds pitchers wound up throwing 188 pitches... in eight innings, 67 more than Cubs pitchers did, combined, in nine. Lackey, for his part, got a warm ovation when he was removed with two out in the seventh inning after 90 pitches (60 strikes).
This team and organization has been preached patience at the plate and they are taking that lesson and giving daily demonstrations of how well it works. The five-run first would have been enough to win this one, but the Cubs tacked on two more runs, helped by a pair of walks, in the third, and two more in the fourth, highlighted by Kris Bryant's first home run of the year, which bounced off a railing about 20 feet below me (link only, no embed code; that's me in the tan-colored coat).
After that, with the Cubs seemingly safely ahead 9-1, the surprisingly large crowd had started to thin out, undoubtedly to go watch the Blackhawks' first playoff game, or maybe just to get indoors on a chilly, breezy night. The wind was blowing in from right field, but it didn't have any effect on Bryant's blast, a laser beam of a homer that got out of the park in a big hurry.
Lackey wound up throwing a very effective 6⅔ innings, continuing the streak of having every Cubs starter this year go at least six. The starters' ERA is 3.10 in 52⅓ innings and the bullpen is even better: 0.93 ERA in 19⅓ innings with just two walks. Cubs relievers are certainly well-rested given the starters' long outings. Wednesday night, it was Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Neil Ramirez finishing up the game with 2⅓ innings and just one hit and one walk allowed. Ramirez' velocity looked good to me, hitting 93 on the ballpark pitch-speed meter.
All this winning is happening while the Cubs' two best hitters last year, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, are hitting .212 and .207 respectively (though Rizzo, with eight walks, has a .395 on-base percentage). And Cubs pitchers, who were collectively terrible hitters last year, are 3-for-16 with a home run and two walks.
With the Baltimore Orioles' first loss of 2016 happening Wednesday night, the Cubs find themselves tied with Baltimore for the best record in the major leagues at 7-1 as Thursday's action begins. They are leading the National League in runs, walks and on-base percentage, as well as run differential (+36; next closest is the Giants at +19). The 7-1 record is the Cubs' best start since 1985, when they also ran out to a 7-1 start. That year didn't turn out well, largely because the entire starting rotation spent time on the disabled list.
And the Cubs are positioned for their first three-game sweep of the season if they can defeat the Reds again Thursday evening. Jason Hammel will face Raisel Iglesias at 7:05 CT.