Once again, the Cubs had to win one after a loss to remain two games over .500. They were 39-37 after this win, one game behind the Brewers in the N.L. Central.
Before I tell you about all the great things Javier Baez did to help the Cubs defeat the Nationals 5-4 in the opener of their four-game series, I am going to relate to you how the Cubs nearly blew a five-run lead in the ninth inning.
So fasten your seat belts.
It looked like a relatively easy last of the ninth after the Cubs had padded their lead with three runs in the top of the inning (more on this later). So Joe Maddon called on Hector Rondon, who has struggled most of this season, instead of Wade Davis pitching in a non-save situation.
Bad idea. Daniel Murphy led off with a double, and after Jon Jay made a nice sliding catch on a sinking line drive by Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters singled Murphy in.
Okay, it’s just 5-1, but now Joe Maddon figures Davis needs to be in the game, even though it’s not yet a save situation.
Michael Taylor doubled on Davis’ first pitch, sending Wieters to third. Pinch-hitter Stephen Drew doubled in both runners.
Now it’s 5-3. It’s a save situation, but no one’s going to replace Davis here, especially since the only pitcher left in the bullpen is Felix Pena. Davis walked Trea Turner, something that’s very difficult to do. Turner had walked only 14 times in 296 plate appearances before Monday. Now the tying run is on base.
Davis struck out Brian Goodwin. Now the Cubs are one out away from victory, but Bryce Harper is the next hitter. Harper looped a single just out of Baez’s reach — that would have been a fantastic way to end this one had Baez been able to catch that — to load the bases. Now the winning run is on base; when this inning began there was brave talk about the Cubs possibly being the first team to shut out the Nats this year.
And give Javy credit for that play even though he didn’t catch the ball. If Harper’s hit gets past him, a run probably scores.
Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been hitting everything in sight in 2017, was the next hitter. He was 0-for-4 coming into that at-bat.
You had visions of failure here, didn’t you? Especially after Davis threw a wild pitch that made it 5-4 and put the winning run in scoring position.
Fortunately, Davis struck Zimmerman out and the Cubs had their win, though it went from “easy” to “hard” in the space of about 15 minutes. And since they won, you can laugh now. Right? Right?
Now let’s rewind and talk about all the good things that happened for the Cubs in this game. I briefly mentioned all the Javy things earlier, and I’ll get to them, but let’s begin with the Cubs’ newest leadoff sensation, Willson Contreras.
.@WContreras40 leads off tonight's #MLBNShowcase game with a solo homer! pic.twitter.com/b6C12WW7ui— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) June 26, 2017
I mean, come on. Is every single player Joe tries in the leadoff spot going to do this? Contreras’ homer, off Gio Gonzalez’ fifth pitch, gave the Cubs an early 1-0 lead.
Fun facts about Willson’s HR:
Willson Contreras: first leadoff HR by a catcher in #Cubs National League history (1876-present)— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) June 26, 2017
Contreras' HR marks 9th time in MLB history a catcher has hit leadoff HR. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 27, 2017
#Cubs Contreras is 1st catcher to hit leadoff HR since John Jaso on Sept. 4, 2010 for Rays vs O's— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 27, 2017
The “first leadoff homer by a catcher in Cubs history” fact is largely because catchers have mostly not ever led off for the Cubs. In fact, in the baseball-reference era (since 1913), there was just one other game in which a catcher batted leadoff for the Cubs. I won’t tell you here who it was. You can click on this link and find out. The player who did this didn’t do well in that game, although the Cubs won.
The way the Nats have been hitting, you’d think this game would have quickly become a match of power hitting, but Eddie Butler managed to hold them down for five innings. Butler did give up some hard contact early, but kept the ball in the park. He also had some help from Javy:
OK, @javy23baez! #MLBNShowcase @Cubs pic.twitter.com/dMitSyudzq— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) June 27, 2017
He also got some help from the replay-review crew on this pickoff by Contreras in the third [VIDEO].
Butler completed five innings, allowing just four singles. He didn’t walk anyone, something that’s been an issue for him in the past. He threw only 64 pitches and probably could have gone farther into the game, except his batting-order spot came up in the sixth and Joe Maddon, trying to put more runs on the board in a 1-0 game, sent Addison Russell up to bat for him with two runners on base. Russell is battling a shoulder issue; whether this affects his hitting is uncertain, but Gonzalez struck him out.
On we went. In the eighth, Javy singled with one out and then this happened [VIDEO].
Jeimer Candelario’s ground ball looked like a sure double play, but Javy beat the throw to second and so both runners were safe. Javy proceeded to steal third base, and that brought up Albert Almora Jr.:
Squeeze bunt single! The @Cubs lead 2-0. #MLBNShowcase pic.twitter.com/pwaYTnc6cZ— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) June 27, 2017
Almora’s perfect bunt scored Javy to make it 2-0.
The Cubs’ bullpen, up to this point, had done an excellent job. Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Koji Uehara had gotten to two out in the eighth without allowing a run. That included yet another fantastic Javy play:
Javy mercy. pic.twitter.com/cclJzyHy7W— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 27, 2017
That was... well, take a look at this:
Javier Baez.... Covering 132ft to make a great catch in foul territory. pic.twitter.com/XBxE0yGleU— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 27, 2017
Javy on Javy:
#Cubs Baez on catching the pop up: "I don't know how I caught it. I just ran hard over there and never gave up"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 27, 2017
Then Joe brought Brian Duensing in to pitch to Harper with two out in the eighth and a runner on first base. Harper singled, putting runners on first and second.
Now, you can debate here whether this was the situation for Davis or not. Many managers would have brought in their closer for a four-out save here. Joe decided not to do that and called on Justin Grimm to face Zimmerman.
Zimmerman ran the count full on Grimm and then grounded out to end the inning, so things are looking good.
Things looked even better after the top of the ninth. Tommy La Stella batted for Grimm and wound up on second base after Nats pitcher Matt Grace threw his dribbler in the general direction of right field. One out later Anthony Rizzo singled him in to make it 3-0, and Rizzo took second on an error by Goodwin. Kris Bryant was sent to first base (I noticed on the broadcast you could hear the Nats PA announcer say, “That’s an intentional walk,” and I think the Cubs should do this at Wrigley as well).
Then it was Javy time again! [VIDEO]
Baez’s double made it 5-0 and it looked like it would be an easy win.
For the rest of what turned out to be a nail-biter you can simply re-read the first few paragraphs of this recap.
Let’s just say it worked, and the Cubs came out of this game with a win. I would not recommend doing it this way on a regular basis.
Credit to Javy for a terrific all-around game. Credit to Willson for the same. And credit to Davis for, at last, locking down a game where he didn’t appear to have his best stuff.
The win moved the Cubs to within one game of first place in the N.L. Central behind the Brewers, who had Monday off.
Tuesday evening, the Cubs and Nats go at it again, in a matchup of pitchers who have both thrown two no-hitters: Jake Arrieta vs. Max Scherzer.