This game felt important.
That's unusual for a mid-May regular-season contest, and it might just be a personal feeling that you might not share, so I'll try to explain. The Cubs haven't had many close games so far this year, and up to Wednesday night hadn't done all that well in one-run affairs (a middling 4-4). 15 of their 27 wins before this one had been by five or more runs.
So in a way, they hadn't really been tested in a game where strategy and use of the entire roster came into play. But Joe Maddon got pretty much everything he could out of everyone but the four guys in the starting rotation who didn't go in this one Eventually it took some clutch pitching by Travis Wood, who's been shaky at times this year, as well as a bases-loaded walk to Wood, to seal the Cubs' 2-1, 13-inning win over the Brewers that clocked in at exactly five hours.
Even after Wood's fine performance, it took two pitching changes and the Brewers had the tying and winning runs in scoring position before Clayton Richard put an end to it by getting Kirk Nieuwenhuis to ground to Ben Zobrist.
Not only was it Richard's first big-league save, it was his first save opportunity, which was bestowed on him because he was the last man available, unless the Cubs wanted to go to one of their starters. (Can you imagine, say, Jake Arrieta pitching past midnight in extra innings?)
The Cubs wouldn't likely have been in extras, with the chance to win, had it not been for David Ross. Grandpa Rossy, who's having a year that might make him reconsider his decision to retire at the end of 2016, was outstanding defensively. He threw out three runners trying to steal, and picked off another. Here's a montage of some of his work in this game -- all three of these plays ended innings:
Meanwhile, up to the ninth inning this one was starting to feel like a repeat of Tuesday's loss. Jimmy Nelson had Cubs hitters off-balance, much as Chase Anderson did. The Cubs have just two runs off an opponent's starter since Saturday -- 24 innings in which the only runs were the two homers in the ninth inning Tuesday. The Brewers pushed across a run in the fifth inning off John Lackey on a double by Nieuwenhuis, a single by Domingo Santana, and a force play.
Lackey, otherwise, did fine on this night -- six innings, four hits and just the one run.
Meanwhile, Maddon was pulling out every trick in his very large book to try to score runs. He needed them, too, as the Cubs had a runner in scoring position just twice before the ninth inning, partly as a result of the Cubs hitting into three double plays, including this slick one in the third inning:
In the ninth, after Anthony Rizzo got hit by a pitch, Maddon sent Javier Baez in to run for him. That's a risky move, losing one of your best hitters if the game goes into extra innings, which it did. But first you have to get there, and Baez did score the tying run, though in a rather prosaic way: advancing to second on a single by Zobrist, and scoring on a pair of ground outs.
So the game is tied. The Cubs got a runner to second in the 10th and 11th innings, but nothing came from those opportunities.
In the bottom of the 12th, Tommy La Stella's error on leadoff hitter Chris Carter's grounder and two walks loaded the bases with nobody out. Doom, right?
Thanks to Wood (who issued the second of those walks after replacing Hector Rondon), nope! Joe Maddon employed a five-man infield and left just Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward in the outfield -- too deep, it seemed, at first, one TV shot showed almost everyone in the Cubs dugout frantically waving them both to move in.
Hernan Perez lofted a fly ball to medium center, caught by Fowler. Brewers third-base coach Ed Sedar held Santana at third. A mistake on his part, probably; it would have taken a perfect throw by Fowler to get him. Thank you, Ed Sedar. Maddon shifted around his infielders and outfielder (Kris Bryant) playing in the infield; gloves were exchanged and for one batter, Bryant was positioned at first base and Baez at third. The next two Brewers were induced to hit infield popups to end the threat. Loud cheers from the remnants of the crowd erupted; it sounded like a home game at Wrigley, with most of those in the park seeming to be Cubs fans.
The Cubs' winning rally followed. With one out, Zobrist singled and La Stella was hit by a pitch. Addison Russell ran the count full, but struck out, and then the Brewers intentionally passed Miguel Montero.
That turned out to be another mistake, though "by the book" it was the right thing to do, with the pitcher, Wood, up next. Montero was 0-for-6 since his return from the DL and dating back to April 24, in an 0-for-19 slump before entering this game in the ninth inning.
But Brewers reliever Carlos Torres was wild with Wood, a good-hitting pitcher, at the plate, and Travis, disciplined, walked on a 3-1 pitch to give the Cubs the lead. Here's all of Wood's heroics, both on the mound and at the plate:
The tension wasn't over, though, as the pesky Jonathan Villar doubled to lead off the bottom of the 13th. A groundout put the Cubs two outs away from victory, but Maddon wasn't going to let Wood face Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter, righthanded hitters with power.
The forgotten man of the pen, Neil Ramirez, who hadn't pitched in a week, was summoned. He walked Lucroy and struck out Carter -- not the worst possible result, but it put the winning run on base. That's when Richard was brought into the game to face Nieuwenhuis.
Nieuwenhuis, whose name is difficult to type correctly, is a league-average guy who's bounced around. You might remember one of his 18 career home runs quite well -- the one in this game. A single here likely wins the game for Milwaukee.
But Richard, faced with an situation foreign to him and with the knowledge that if the Brewers tie it up, he's likely pitching multiple innings, ran the count full before he got Kirk N. (sorry, tired of typing his last name!) to ground to Ben Z. to end it.
Sloppy? Sure. Dull? In a way; the three runs that came across the plate scored on a forceout, a groundout and a bases-loaded walk, which is another way of saying the two teams were awful with RISP, a combined 1-for-25. The Cubs left 14 men on base. Brewers pitchers had trouble throwing strikes: 208 pitches, only 132 strikes (63 percent).
Give credit to the Cubs' bullpen. Combined, they threw seven scoreless innings, allowing two hits and six walks, striking out nine. Without Wood, they likely lose this game, and as I said 1,100 words ago, it felt important for this team to win one like this, where they didn't hit much and where pitching and defense mattered. Here are a couple of fun notes on this one:
Travis Wood: first pitcher to draw an extra inning bases loaded walk since Adam Eaton 8/24/2009#Cubs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) May 19, 2016
Bonus: Dexter Fowler scored on the Eaton walk— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) May 19, 2016
#Cubs last 3 games:— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) May 19, 2016
0 runs in first 8 innings
5 runs in 9th inning or later
This team is finding ways to win, even when they're not hitting. They still haven't lost more than two games in a row, nor have they lost on consecutive calendar days.
Cubs walk watch: eight of them in this marathon brings the season total to 191, or 5.03 per game. Pace: 814.
The Cubs will be going for the series win in just a few hours, likely a bunch of very tired hitters (so will the Brewers). Jason Hammel, who I hope the Cubs sent back to the hotel for rest before the end of Wednesday's marathon, will face Junior Guerra. The game preview will post at 11 a.m. CT. And yes, I'm heading up to Milwaukee for this one.