Games like this one got people looking at Kris Bryant as a serious MVP candidate.
On an oppressively hot and humid afternoon at Wrigley Field (the dew point got to 72, which is pretty tropical, and the bleachers were half-empty by game's end), Jake Arrieta started out as if he might have no-hitter stuff. He retired 11 of the first 12 hitters he faced, interrupted only by a two-out walk in the second inning, and the first three-plus innings flew by, at least when the Brewers were batting.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were going out to one of their patented early-inning leads. They scored two in the first on RBIs by Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell, and scored in the first inning in three of the four games of this series. In the third, Kris Bryant's two-run homer highlighted a three-run inning and the Cubs led 5-0.
Seemed like an easy win was at hand, but suddenly, Arrieta lost command of the strike zone. He walked two more in the fourth, followed by Kirk Nieuwenhuis hitting a three-run homer, the Brewers' first hit of the game. This guy has been a Cubs nemesis all year; against the Cubs he's now hitting .353/.476/.882 (12-for-34) with three doubles, five home runs, eight walks, nine runs scored and 10 RBI. This from someone whose overall numbers coming into the game were .211/.324/.389. I mean... maybe the Cubs should trade for him just to stop him from hitting against Cubs pitching.
The Cubs tacked on two more in the fourth, and Bryant had his third hit of the game, an RBI double, making it 7-3, but Arrieta issued two more walks in the fifth and then served up a home run to Hernan Perez leading off the sixth. Truth be told, Joe Maddon probably should have taken him out right there, before he issued two more walks. The seven walks were a career high for Arrieta, but Bryant helped bail him out with two more hits, including his second homer of the game (and 30th of the season), and the Cubs swept the Brewers with a 9-6 victory that was much harder than it should have been.
Here's Bryant's first homer of the day:
Here's Bryant's 30th homer, hit into the center-field shrubbery:
It was crushed:
#Cubs Kris Bryant's 30th HR hit 103.1 MPH and projected at 396ft... He's good at baseball.— Daren Willman (@darenw) August 18, 2016
And here's Bryant talking to CSN Chicago's Kelly Crull about his 5-for-5 day after the game:
When Arrieta (having thrown only 56 strikes in 103 pitches) finally was relieved by Spencer Patton, Patton took over Arrieta's lack of command. He walked the first hitter he faced, pinch-hitter Orlando Arcia, to load the bases. Then he walked Jonathan Villar to force in a run; at the time, it made the score 7-5, which is far closer than this game should have been, given the Cubs' offensive attack. But Patton settled down and retired six of the next seven hitters he faced, before allowing a two-out walk in the eighth, after a double by Nieuwenhuis. Justin Grimm entered and allowed a run-scoring single, but then got Scooter Gennett to end the inning.
Which raises the question: Where was Hector Rondon? Hector's supposed to be the eighth-inning bridge to Aroldis Chapman, and had thrown 16 pitches in the first game Tuesday, so you'd have thought he would be available. He wasn't even in the bullpen, at least not as far as I could tell. I'm hoping nothing's wrong with Hector, as it's clear by today's bullpen work that they need him.
Bryant's fifth hit of the day was an RBI single in the eighth, extending the lead to three runs and making things (mostly) easy for Chapman, who did allow a one-out single in the ninth but posted his 27th save (sixth as a Cub) with two strikeouts and a ground ball to first base.
Now, back to Bryant's big day. Here are some fun Bryant facts about his 5-for-5, five-RBI afternoon with four runs scored:
Kris Bryant: 3 games with 4+ Hits, 4+ Runs & 4+ RBI this season— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 18, 2016
First #Cubs player with 3 such games in a season since Hack Wilson (1930)
4+ Hits, 4+ Runs & 4+ RBI in a game#Cubs since 1970— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 18, 2016
Games with 5+ Hits & 2+ Home Runs by #Cubs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 18, 2016
2 Kris Bryant
1 Eight players tied
#Cubs to hit 30+ HR in age 24 or younger season— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 18, 2016
1955 Ernie Banks
1964 Ron Santo
1993 Sammy Sosa
2014 Anthony Rizzo
2016 Kris Bryant
The age given above is as of June 30 of the season noted. With games like this and his overall production, Bryant becomes a legitimate MVP candidate.
In the end, I suppose, all that's important is the win. But the Cubs shouldn't have let the Brewers anywhere near the lead in this one, and Arrieta's wildness is concerning. The Cubs took advantage of a mediocre Brewers pitching staff to post this win, and they'll need to nail down the mid-game relief corps, too.
The win completed an 8-2 homestand and gave the Cubs an additional half-game lead over the second-place Cardinals (now 13 games behind) and third-place Pirates (now 14 games back). Both those teams had Thursday off. They also improved to 34 games over .500, one short of the highest-water mark over .500 since 1945. The 2008 Cubs peaked at 85-50, 35 games over, before finishing 97-64 (33 over). The last time any Cubs team was more than 35 games over .500 was the last day of the 1945 season. That team finished 98-56, 42 games over.
And finally -- and I hope it's not too soon -- this win reduced the Cubs' magic number to clinch the N.L. Central title to 30. That's a pretty low number for only a bit more than halfway through August. The Cubs' 45-19 home record is a .703 winning percentage and would translate to 57 home wins, which would be a franchise record.
The Cubs will take this show on the road to Denver and the West Coast beginning Friday night, and Maddon has another pajama party planned for the flight back from Los Angeles a week from Sunday:
#Cubs West Coast trip will end in pajamas. Players get to wear onesies coming back from LA— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 18, 2016
Fun, but I'm sure the players will not let up on the task at hand. Winning out West has never been easy for Cubs teams, and I hope this trip will be an exception to that rule.