Saturday night's game did not start out well for Jon Lester. Three pitches in, he trailed 1-0 when Jordy Mercer launched a Lester offering into the left-field bleachers. Then Lester issued three walks in the inning -- more than he'd allowed in his previous four starts (30⅓ innings) combined.
Fortunately, David Ross helped prevent another run by throwing Andrew McCutchen out on an attempted steal of third.
Ross also provided some offensive heroics by hitting his fifth home run of the season and also drove in a run on a beautifully-executed squeeze bunt as the Cubs came from behind for a 4-3 win over the Pirates.
The Cubs had two other long balls on the night. Anthony Rizzo tied the game with a solo shot into the right-field party patio in the second, and then after the Pirates had gone ahead 3-1 and Ross' squeeze made it 3-2, Kris Bryant tied it up again with this monster homer [VIDEO] that landed across the street on Waveland:
@CarrieMuskat @cubs @PWSullivan @KrisBryant_23 460ft just past yellow apartment caught on the fly . #16 for Bryant pic.twitter.com/xsK49CWdkX— BALLHAWK.NET (@Super_Dave) June 19, 2016
The official measurement on Bryant's blast was 448 feet. He and Rizzo remain tied for the team lead with 16.
The Cubs, as on Friday, had many other chances to score runs. They left RISP in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh innings, and seemed to have a good chance to break the game open in the seventh after Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch to lead off and advanced to second on a groundout. Rizzo was intentionally walked and Ben Zobrist also walked to load the bases, but Javier Baez hit into an inning-ending double play.
That was about the only thing Baez did wrong all night. He doubled in the second, then reached on a force play in the fourth. After that play, he got picked off and called out attempting to take second:
On review, the call was overturned. You can see how Baez made a nice slide avoiding the tag, then kept his foot on the base as he slid past it. Nice work there, and Baez also made a couple of slick plays in the field, this one in the sixth [VIDEO] to rob Sean Rodriguez of a hit, throwing accurately to first base from his knees. Here's another Baez web gem:
Here's still another excellent defensive play made Saturday evening, a diving stop by Addison Russell [VIDEO] in the third inning that started an inning-ending double play.
After all that, it was up to the Cubs' bullpen and Joe Maddon got a bit creative after Lester was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth.
Pedro Strop, who'd normally be saved for the eighth, entered for the top of the seventh. It was just the fifth time this year (in 30 appearances) that Strop was in a game before the eighth inning. I figured he'd go through part of the eighth and then yield to Hector Rondon, also going more than an inning. Strop did have a 1-2-3 seventh, then gave up a leadoff single to Jung Ho Kang in the eighth. After Kang advanced to second on one of Baez's great plays, Maddon summoned Travis Wood to pitch to the lefthanded-hitting Matt Joyce. Clint Hurdle countered with Jason Rogers, just recalled from Triple-A. Wood dispatched him on a three-pitch strikeout.
That brought Hector into the game, the second time this week he'd been called on for more than a one-inning save. (The first was the failure in Washington on Wednesday.) He got Rodriguez to fly to right to end the inning.
That led to some unintentional hilarity. Rondon was the third scheduled hitter in the last of the eighth, and you knew there's no way he was coming out of the game. It was his first professional at-bat -- he hadn't batted previously in 205 big-league games, nor 105 minor-league games. Hector stood at the plate waggling his bat as if he wanted to hit a home run longer than Bryant's. Eventually he bunted foul on strike three [VIDEO], but give him style points for the attempt.
The ninth inning involved a bunt attempt for a hit by Erik Kratz, not a bad idea on his part, but Rondon fielded it neatly for the first out. A fly to left brought out number two, and then Rondon slipped a 97 mile per hour fastball [VIDEO] past Mercer to end it. Even throwing a four-out save, Rondon was efficient with his pitches, just 13 of them (nine strikes), and at one point hit 98 on the Wrigley pitch speed meter.
Dexter Fowler didn't participate in much of this game as he left following a first-inning groundout with what was later termed "right hamstring discomfort" that will need "further evaluation." This doesn't sound too bad:
Joe says Fowler will have an MRI on hamstring but described it as only "a little sore." #Cubs— Bruce Miles (@BruceMiles2112) June 19, 2016
If you think Cubs starting pitching has been really, really good this year, check out this chart of good rotations, normalized to league ERA:
.@ckamka Best team starters, March-June, 1920-2016, normalized ERAs. #Cubs are pretty good. pic.twitter.com/N1zk36DumZ— Scott Lindholm (@ScottLindholm) June 18, 2016
The Cubs are not only the best, they're lapping the field.
The ballpark was rocking again Saturday night on another beautiful weather day, with fans standing and cheering for strikeouts as early as the fourth inning. You don't often see this sort of playoff atmosphere in June, but I think we can start expecting this almost all the time now, with full houses expected throughout this homestand, at least. The win, coupled with the Cardinals' loss Saturday, increased the Cubs' lead to a season-high 11½ games in the N.L. Central, as well as bringing them to a season-high 26 games over .500.
Cubs walk watch: The Cubs are stepping up the base on balls count in this series. Seven more Saturday night bring the season total to 289, an average of 4.38 per game. Pace: 709. At the current pace the Cubs will break the team record (650) in game 149, September 18 vs. the Brewers.
In the meantime, though, there are games to be won, and another potential sweep for the Cubs if they can win Sunday evening. Kyle Hendricks goes for the Cubs against Pirates rookie Jameson Taillon.