A couple of Cubs players who I've said wouldn't be productive are busy proving me wrong, and I couldn't be happier.
When the Cubs signed John Lackey, I was somewhat concerned that his age might mean he'd be susceptible to sudden decline.
Wrong! Lackey's been excellent this year and put together another solid outing Tuesday night. Since the beginning of May he's posted a 1.72 ERA in nine starts and is striking out more than a batter an inning. He might have gone longer in this one except for hitting Danny Espinosa to lead off the seventh and then allowing a double to light-hitting Jose Lobaton. Lackey doesn't disguise his emotions on the mound and you could tell he was upset with himself for doing that. But all in all, I have to say Lackey's been well worth his contract, and I'm pleased to have been wrong about him.
I've also been skeptical about Albert Almora Jr. Up until this year I never thought he'd hit enough to be more than a fourth or fifth outfielder in the major leagues. But he hit very well at Triple-A Iowa before his callup (.318/.335/.444), reached a career high in stolen bases in a third of a season, and kind of forced the issue on bringing him to the big leagues after the injury to Jorge Soler.
Tuesday night, after entering the game in a double switch, Almora provided the game-winning hit, a line-drive double into the gap in the ninth inning, and the Cubs evened up their series with the Nationals with a 4-3 win.
New heroes every day, it seems.
Lackey had allowed one run before the seventh inning, but the Cubs already had a 2-0 lead by then, helped out by his own hitting. Neither he nor his pal and former Red Sox teammate Jon Lester are good hitters, but Lackey's single into right field helped key that third-inning two-run rally. Dexter Fowler followed it with a double and then scored the second of two runs driven in by a Jason Heyward single with this outstanding slide:
The Cubs added a third run on David Ross' RBI single in the fourth inning. Ross doesn't have enough at-bats to qualify, but if he did, his .755 OPS would rank fourth among big-league catchers this year, behind only Jonathan Lucroy, Salvador Perez and Buster Posey, pretty good company.
The Nats chipped away at the lead, scoring a run on a sacrifice fly off Pedro Strop in the seventh after Lackey had been removed, the run charged to Lackey. Strop, though, did an excellent job of getting out of a jam that had runners on second and third and nobody out when he entered the game, striking out two of the three hitters he faced.
One more Nats run scored in the eighth, tying the game. Travis Wood walked Bryce Harper and then after he got Daniel Murphy to fly to center, Joe Maddon made a flurry of switches, including moving Javier Baez to second base. This would turn out to be important later on. Hector Rondon entered the game, the first time he'd pitched in the eighth inning this year. A single and a sac fly later, the game was tied.
But in the ninth, the Cubs took the lead on a walk to Addison Russell and Almora's hit, which of course you want to see again:
Check out the reaction in the dugout. These guys really root for each other and you can tell how Almora has already become a key part of this team, just a few games into his big-league career.
I mentioned the Baez defensive switch being important. Here's why:
That was the final out of the game, and though Ben Zobrist is a fine second baseman, I'm not sure he gets to that ball, and even if he does, he likely doesn't make that strong, accurate throw. The versatility of this Cubs roster is helping to win games, and there's a perfect example of exactly that.
Fun Cubs fact of the day:
#Cubs now 40-2 (.952) this season when scoring at least 4 runs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) June 15, 2016
The win also evened up the Cubs' record in one-run games at 8-8. That isn't such a great record, but the this team is so good in blowouts that it really doesn't matter. It is, however, a very good thing that they were able to overcome a blown lead in the late innings in this one, against a very good team, and win it.
Don't forget that the series finale is an afternoon game, at 3:05 p.m. CT. It won't be an easy task to win this series, especially with late-afternoon shadows at Nationals Park. Jason Hammel goes for the Cubs and Stephen Strasburg for the Nats. The game preview will post at 1 p.m. CT.