Funny thing, after the Cubs spent several weeks and two trades of top prospects trying to upgrade an admittedly-weak bullpen: it took until the eighth inning of the third game of the series against the Oakland Athletics before they used any of their key late-inning relief pitchers.
Sunday, Kyle Hendricks continued his terrific recent pitching run by allowing just one run over seven and a third innings and Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler hit solo homers to lead the Cubs to a 3-1 win over the Athletics. It was the Cubs' second straight three-game series sweep, and their eighth sweep of a three-game set this year (they also have a pair of two-game series sweeps, over the Angels and Brewers).
They outscored the A's 14-3 in the series and in the seven-game streak have outscored their opponents 34-15.
The Cubs were smacking doubles all over the yard in the early innings (Ben Zobrist, Matt Szczur), but neither could score. The Szczur double eventually led to a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation in the third inning after a pair of walks. But Anthony Rizzo bounced into a force play at the plate and then Zobrist lined to first. Rizzo was caught off base for an inning-ending double play.
Soler, for his part, had a great series, serving all three games at DH. He went 4-for-12 with a double, two homers and five RBI. He has yet to play the field since he returned from the DL, a wise choice on Joe Maddon's part, I think. I suspect he'll be platooning for a while in the field.
And Hendricks was dealing. He allowed just a pair of infield singles until Marcus Semien ruined his shutout bid with an eighth-inning homer. He didn't walk anyone and induced a lot of weak contact. Besides Semien's homer, the only really hard-hit ball was a line drive hit by Coco Crisp, snagged by Rizzo with this nice leaping grab by Rizzo [VIDEO]. He retired 17 in a row before Semien's blast and threw 68 strikes in 100 pitches.
Clayton Kershaw's 1.79 ERA still leads the National League, as Kershaw's 121.1 innings are still enough to qualify, but Hendricks' 2.17 isn't too far behind. Here are all the Cubs qualified starters with a full-season ERA that low since 1920:
Pretty impressive, and this is the way Hendricks dominated all the minor leagues he was in on his way to the Cubs in 2014. It's taken him a couple of years to establish himself as a big-league starter, but he's clearly one of the best in the National League. It's personally gratifying to me as a fan, because I've always believed he could be this good. Here's Hendricks since June 24:
Kyle Hendricks last 10 games (9 starts)— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 7, 2016
1.06 ERA, 59.1 IP, 46 H, 16 BB, 51 K, 1.045 WHIP #Cubs
Bryant's homer, his 27th, set a new career high for him, with nearly a third of the season to go, which gives him a reasonable shot at 40. There have been only 19 40-homer seasons in all of Cubs history, 12 of them by Sammy Sosa (seven) and Ernie Banks (five). No Cub has hit 40 or more since Derrek Lee hit 46 in 2005. Here are all 19:
Pedro Strop retired the only two batters he faced and Aroldis Chapman (23rd save, third as a Cub) threw a scoreless ninth, although he did allow a two-out single before striking Khris Davis out with a 104 mile per hour fastball.
The win put the Cubs at a season-high 28 games over .500. The Cubs were last 30 or more games over .500 at the end of last season, when they finished 32 games over at 97-65. They seem on their way to matching that or passing it by, so here are a few more numbers:
Last time 35 games over: September 24, 2008, 96-61
Last time 40 games over: September 30, 1945, 98-56 (42 over)
Last time more than 42 games over: October 15, 1910, 104-50 (54 over)
Franchise (and MLB) record: 80 games over .500, October 7, 1906
More good news on the day: both the Cardinals and Pirates lost, the Cardinals losing two of three to the awful Braves at home. The Cardinals, inexplicably, have a 26-32 record at Busch Stadium, but are 32-21 on the road. Only the Braves and Diamondbacks have worse home records in the N.L., but the Cardinals' road record is the best in the league.
Anyway, that increased the Cubs' first-place margin over the Cardinals to 11½ games and they lead the Bucs by 13½. They also improved their interleague record to 11-4, and yet another interleague series follows, two games against the Angels at Wrigley Field, beginning Tuesday evening. Jason Hammel will return from the bereavement list to go for the Cubs, meaning a roster move will have to be made. Jered Weaver will start for the Angels.
Cubs walk watch: four in this game made the season total 460, or 4.18 per game. Pace: 677.
Non-Cubs note: Congratulations to Ichiro Suzuki, who recorded his 3,000th major-league hit in Colorado against the Rockies Sunday afternoon, a seventh-inning triple.
Things are looking great again. The Cubs are 17-6 since July 10 and 6-0 so far in August. Here's how good Cubs starting pitchers have been in that stretch:
#Cubs starters in 22 games since All-Star break— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 7, 2016
2.49 ERA, 141.0 IP, 103 Hits, 121 K, 1.007 WHIP
(2.15 ERA minus Matusz start)
The Cubs are 37-17 at home and play their next 10 games at Wrigley Field. Should be good times. Onward.