Just five pitches into the Cubs' 5-2 win over the Brewers Friday evening, we were all reminded of how much this team has missed Dexter Fowler.
Fowler smashed a home run [VIDEO] to deep center field, one of three hits he had on the night. One inning later, Fowler drove in two more runs with a double down the left-field line.
Those runs came after Addison Russell had reached on a throwing error by Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson and a walk to Miguel Montero. Jason Hammel tried to bunt the runners along, but Nelson and Milwaukee third baseman Hernan Perez did a curious little dance around Hammel's bunt and he reached base with a single.
Here's a fun fact about Fowler's homer:
#Cubs career leadoff HR leaders— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) July 23, 2016
22 Alfonso Soriano
20 Jimmy Ryan
17 Rick Monday
9 Dexter Fowler
Fowler went 3-for-4 on the evening with a walk, two runs scored and three RBI. With his extended time on the DL he doesn't currently have enough plate appearances to qualify for the league-leader charts (he should again in a couple of days), but if he did, his .405 OBP would rank fourth in the National League.
Hammel, meanwhile, was mowing down Brewers. Ryan Braun touched him for a homer in the fourth to make it 4-1, and he allowed an RBI double to Perez in the fifth as the Brewers closed to within 4-2. When Scooter Gennett led off the sixth with a double, Joe Maddon wisely lifted Hammel, who's had cramping problems on hot, humid days like these. Even with Hammel's new potato-chip treatment for the cramping, it was the right thing to do, even after Hammel had thrown just 76 pitches.
That's when the Cubs bullpen really shined. Carl Edwards Jr., who looks more impressive with every outing, retired the next three batters after Gennett, one on a ground ball, two on strikeouts, with his fastball touching 96 according to CSN's scorebox. Edwards is turning into a very valuable member of this bullpen. He's got 16 strikeouts in 14 innings with just four walks.
The rest of the pen after Edwards was similarly excellent. Travis Wood, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (17th save) combined for three hitless innings, with four strikeouts and a pair of harmless walks.
The Cubs' final run was added in the eighth on an RBI single by Montero. Despite his low batting average (.192), Montero has been contributing with hits like this and walks (.319 OBP).
One key play early on happened in the third inning, with two Brewers runners on base, two out, and the Cubs leading 4-0:
Jonathan Villar was ruled safe on the field, but replays showed Anthony Rizzo had tagged him just before he got his hand back on first base. The overturned call ended the inning and that Brewers scoring threat.
As I've noted elsewhere, the Cubs really do play better with Fowler. While his absence wasn't the only reason for the Cubs' skid over the end of June and beginning of July, these numbers do mean something:
#Cubs 44-18 when Dexter Fowler starts; 14-19 when he doesn't.— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) July 23, 2016
A big part of the current Cubs revival is as a result of this outstanding pitching:
#Cubs since All-Star break:— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) July 23, 2016
Starters: 1.76 ERA, 46.0 IP, 32 Hits, 0.957 WHIP
Relievers: 1.59 ERA, 17.0 IP, 9 Hits, 0.765 WHIP
The Cubs have won five of seven since the break and outscored their opponents 27-12 in those games, and this is the way they were winning games when getting off to their great start -- running up early leads and staying there. Their current run differential of +154 is still 42 runs better than anyone else (Nationals, +112). Overall, including the final game before the All-Star break, the Cubs have won six of their last eight.
Cubs walk watch: the team's base on balls count has dropped a bit recently, but with four in this game the team total is now 397, or 4.18 per game. Pace: 677, which would still be enough to break the team record of 650, set in 1975.
I'm not heading to Milwaukee this weekend, but obviously thousands of Cubs fans did; the Brewers had their third sellout of the season (42,243) and it sounded like at least half Cubs fans. By the time Rondon got Ramon Flores to fly deep to Jason Heyward for the final out, the Cubs fans in attendance sounded like the majority of those remaining. I'd expect the same over the next couple of days.
The Cubs' lead in the N.L. Central remained at 6½ games, as the Cardinals took 16 innings to defeat the Dodgers. The Pirates dropped to 9½ games behind with a loss to the Phillies.
The Cubs go for two in a row over the Brewers Saturday evening at 6:10 CT. John Lackey goes for the Cubs and Zach Davies for Milwaukee.