There were, it seemed, several very good reasons to lift Jason Hammel for pinch-hitter Miguel Montero in the bottom of the sixth Tuesday night, even though Hammel had thrown six shutout innings and allowed just one runner past first base.
First was the opportunity to expand the Cubs' 3-0 lead, with two runners on and two out.
Second was the first chance for Joe Maddon to test out the seventh-eighth-ninth inning triumvirate of Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman, in that order, for one inning each.
Yikes. It almost didn't work. Strop gave up a leadoff single, then threw a potential double-play ball into center field. Two more singles made it 3-2.
But that's where it ended, as Rondon and Chapman threw scoreless frames. Rondon got out of his even though he allowed two hits, with the help of this pickoff, which was ruled "call stands" on review:
All of that gave the Cubs a 3-2 win, their third win in a row, sixth in their last seven, and 13th in their last 19 since they ended a five-game losing streak July 10 in Pittsburgh.
Dexter Fowler was the hitting hero of Tuesday night's win. He led off the first inning with a triple and scored on a single by Willson Contreras. Fowler went 3-for-4, scored twice, and stole a base. Contreras, who prior to Tuesday had hit just .196/.305/.255 in 15 games since the All-Star break, had a pair of hits and a walk as he batted in the No. 2 spot for the first time in his big-league career, in that spot because Joe Maddon wanted to give Kris Bryant the night off (a good choice, in my view).
Joe Maddon on Fowler:
The Cubs' second run scored after Fowler's steal in the second. Contreras drove him in again, and then Anthony Rizzo hit into a weird 7-3-2-1-4 double play [VIDEO]. It's too hard to describe -- watch the video! The Cubs added their third and final run in the fifth. Chris Coghlan singled, was balked to second, and scored on Fowler's third hit. This was all gratifying, as it was off Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, who had carved the Cubs up in Miami in June.
Meanwhile, Hammel was mowing down Marlins. He got into a bit of trouble in the first inning on two singles and a walk, but got Derek Dietrich on a ground ball to Rizzo to end the inning> No other Marlins hitter got past first base off Hammel, who has been outstanding in his last five starts: 1.86 ERA, 0.931 WHIP, 28 strikeouts in 29 innings. As noted above, he certainly could have gone longer in the game, as he had thrown an efficient 80 pitches. In fact, that's even more efficient than it sounds, because Hammel threw 22 pitches in the first inning, so just 58 in the next five. Also:
Jason Hammel in 4 starts since All-Star break:— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 3, 2016
1.50 ERA, 24.0 IP, 16 Hits, 7 Walks, 21 Strikeouts#Cubs
This is gratifying to see, because of Hammel's well-known previous issues in the second halves of seasons. Whether it's the "potato-chip prescription" that keeps Hammel from cramping up or Maddon lifting him early from games, he seems to have gotten that under control this year. Hammel, for his part, gave a lot of credit to Contreras:
With the score 3-2 after Strop's mediocre outing, Travis Wood was summoned to face Christian Yelich, and got out of the inning, but only because of this nice diving catch [VIDEO] by Chris Coghlan. Coghlan's not usually known for defense in left field, but that one was outstanding, especially considering the situation.
Ichiro Suzuki had batted in that seventh inning, pinch-hitting for Marlins starter Jose Fernandez, still seeking hit No. 2,999 of his career. Again, as Monday, he was greeted with a warm ovation. Strop struck him out on a nasty slider. For those of us hoping to see some history (along with Cubs wins), perhaps Ichiro will be in the starting lineup Wednesday afternoon. There have been quite a few Japanese reporters and photographers at Wrigley following Ichiro; the Cubs set up a platform in the left-field bleachers for the additional photographers.
And then it was Chapman time. As has been the case for Chapman's previous appearances, he entered to applause and a buzz rippling through the crowd.
Chapman started off "slowly," throwing "only" 99 miles per hour. The first hitter he faced, Adeiny Hechavarria, tapped a slow grounder down the third-base line. Javier Baez grabbed it, in the almost-routine way we've come to expect from him, and threw Hechavarria out [VIDEO].
As good a third baseman as Bryant has become, he doesn't make that play. Baez has worked really hard on his defense; he's certainly the best defensive infielder the Cubs have, and one of the best in baseball, no matter which position he plays.
Chapman struck out pinch-hitter Jeff Mathis and then ratcheted up the speed to 103 and 104 on J.T. Realmuto before getting him to ground to Baez to end it.
Except for Strop's not-great inning, that's the way the Cubs are hoping to win postseason games, shortening them to six-inning affairs with the three relievers finishing things off. If Strop doesn't make that throwing error, it would have likely worked the way managers draw these things up.
More on recent Cubs starting pitching:
#Cubs starting pitching: 2.66 ERA in 18 games post All-Star break— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 3, 2016
(2.24 minus the Matusz start)
This is the way Cubs starters were pitching in the season's first two months. 18 games is still a bit of a small sample size, but the Cubs are 12-6 in those games and things seem to have corrected themselves from the pre-All-Star 5-15 skid. And with the Cardinals' stunning walkoff loss to the Reds Tuesday night, the Cubs' division lead increased to nine games.
BCBer slcathena joined our group in the bleachers for this win. Nice to see you -- you're welcome any time!
The Cubs lucked out in another way Tuesday night -- originally, scattered storms had been forecast, but no rain fell, and though it was a bit warmer than Monday evening, it was still quite pleasant at the ballpark. The Cubs go for the sweep Wednesday afternoon in a 1:20 p.m. CT start. John Lackey goes for the Cubs and Tom Koehler for Miami. The game preview will post at 11:30 a.m. CT.