Jason Heyward might not be hitting much so far this season, and he's 0-for-9 against his former Cardinals teammates (despite hitting the ball hard on several occasions).
But he almost singlehandedly won Tuesday night's game for the Cubs with this throw:
That was a thing of beauty. Watch as Heyward sets himself up perfectly to make the catch and then laser-beam his throw to Miguel Montero to get Matt Holliday trying to score. That helped the Cubs maintain a 2-1 lead, which they held the rest of the way and defeated the Cardinals for the second consecutive night, winning the series and giving themselves a chance to sweep Wednesday afternoon.
Credit where credit is due: that fourth inning was the only one where Jason Hammel was in trouble. Holliday led off with a single and Matt Adams doubled, but the slow-footed Holliday had to hold at third. Danger! Runners on second and third, nobody out.
But Hammel got Randal Grichuk to pop out, and then Yadier Molina hit the fly ball to Heyward that resulted in the inning-ending double play. From the time of Adams' double, it took Hammel just six pitches to get out of the inning. I think we all knew about Heyward's defensive reputation, but he's shown it on many more occasions than I'd imagined, just 14 games into the season. I can't think of a right fielder in the major leagues who's better than he is.
Meanwhile, Hammel had his third straight excellent outing and continued the Cubs' streak of having every starter go at least six innings, every game this year so far. Here's how rare that is:
... their longest mark since the 1905 team pitched at least six innings in 20 consecutive games.
Hammel allowed just three other hits besides the two that nearly got him in trouble in the fourth inning, didn't walk anyone and struck out six.
Beyond that, he singled to drive in both Cubs runs (link only, no embed code available). Here are some fun facts about that:
Today is the 12th game of the season for the #Cubs under National League rules. The starting pitcher has a hit in 7 of them.— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) April 20, 2016
#Cubs starting pitchers to get a Win & knock in all of team's runs (since 1960). Hammel first to do it since Big Z pic.twitter.com/AhGHeTLMbX— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) April 20, 2016
Cubs pitchers are hitting .226/.265/.387 with two doubles, a home run, three runs scored, two walks and just 12 strikeouts in 31 at-bats (39 percent, well below the big-league average of pitchers K'ing in about 44 percent of their at-bats). This production isn't likely to get me to reverse my position in favor of the DH in the National League, but I admit it's fun to watch and Hammel's hitting, by itself, won the game for the Cubs.
After Javier Baez batted for Hammel in the seventh and nearly suffered a scary injury when he appeared to be hit on the hand (and the ball, on review, was ruled to have hit the bat so it was simply a foul ball), the bullpen took over. Adam Warren, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (third save) allowed one baserunner each, but all three got out of their innings unscathed.
For Rondon, the single by Molina was the first baserunner he'd allowed in four appearances this season. He might have been a bit rusty; it was his first outing in eight days, and he wild-pitched pinch-runner Eric Fryer to second. Even so, he recovered and retired the next three hitters, including striking out Jedd Gyorko to end the game, and also helped out by a nice catch in foul territory by Matt Szczur. Rondon has faced 13 hitters this year and struck out eight of them. That, I'd say, is about as "lock down closer" as you can get.
One of the reasons for the low scoring in this game was the 24 combined strikeouts. Plate umpire Gerry Davis seemed to have an extremely wide strike zone. According to the CubsUmp Twitter account, bad ball-and-strike calls helped the Cubs three times and hurt them four times, fairly even. Still -- this shouldn't happen, to either side in a game.
So the Cubs maintain the best record in baseball at 11-3. Other years a Cubs team has been 11-3 or better after 14 games: 1907 (12-2), 1908, 1918, 1932, 1969 and 1970 (all 11-3). There are four pennant-winning years in that group. They now have a four-game lead in the N.L. Central and their +46 run differential is 17 runs better than anyone else (Cardinals, Nationals are both +29). Including last year's division series, the Cubs have now won 11 of the last 14 games they have played against the Cardinals, and are 5-2 in Busch Stadium since last September.
That's impressive. Even more impressive would be going out Wednesday afternoon and sweeping this series. Kyle Hendricks will face Carlos Martinez at 12:45 p.m. CT, weather permitting. The game preview will post at 11:15 a.m. CT.