They reduced their magic number to clinch home field throughout the N.L. playoffs to two.
Forty years ago, when the Cincinnati Reds were the Big Red Machine, on their way to consecutive pennants and World Series wins (in 1975 and 1976) and the Cubs were... well, “mediocre” is being charitable... the Reds dominated the Cubs, going 20-4 in 1975 and 1976 combined, outscoring the Cubs in those 24 games 176-97.
That’s how this run through Cincinnati’s woeful 2016 squad feels. Dominating. Exhilarating. Wonderful. (Hopefully, a prelude to doing what the Reds did in ‘75 and ‘76.)
The Cubs’ 9-2 crushing of the Reds Wednesday night, completing their third series sweep over them, made the Cubs 13-3 against the Cincinnatians this year. They’ve outscored them 125-55, the equivalent of winning every game over them by about an 8-3 score. And, with two homers Wednesday night, the Cubs tied a franchise record for the most home runs against a single team in a single year, and they’ve got three games remaining against the Reds to break it. The record, 37 homers, was previously set against the 1955 Cardinals -- in 22 games. The 37 dingers they have against the Reds this year is in only 16 games.
Most impressive of the two home runs was Kris Bryant’s 38th of the year.
You can see the guy who made an excellent catch of Bryant’s blast, a theft from the Waveland ballhawks -- that ball would have cleared the fence and made the street if not for that grab. What you don’t see in that clip — and I did, and I wish I’d been able to get my phone out quickly enough to take video — was that after he made the grab, that fan knocked over a trash can sitting along the back fence of the bleachers. Both fan and garbage receptacle survived the impact intact.
Bryant’s homer gave him 99 RBI for the year, tying his total from last year. He’s now got 10 games left to get to the century mark, perhaps fewer, as you’d assume that Joe Maddon is going to give his regulars a few days off once the league’s best record is clinched.
That homer was simply the final salvo of a 15-hit, five-walk attack that had the Cubs scoring in six of the first seven innings. Also homering, leading off the fourth, was Dexter Fowler. That’s a good sign for Dex. He was scuffling a bit early this month but over his last 11 games he’s hitting .350/.490/.650 (14-for-40) with a double, a triple and three home runs.
That blast made it 4-2. The Cubs had scored a pair in the first on RBI singles by Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez, but the Reds put two on the board in the second and might have scored more except for this terrific throw by Chris Coghlan to nail Tucker Barnhart trying to score. That ended the inning with the game tied.
The Cubs scored in the third on an RBI single by Miguel Montero, who had three hits on the night, one of three Cubs with three (Zobrist and Baez the others). Another run crossed the plate in the fifth when Michael Lorenzen balked in a run. Montero drove in two more in the sixth with his third hit, and like Fowler, Montero is swinging a hot bat. Since August 20: .364/.429/.568 (16-for-44) with three doubles, two home runs and 10 RBI. Montero hit .248/.345/.409 in 347 at-bats last year. With all the time he missed with injuries (and briefly being benched) this year, he won’t get to 347 at-bats (he has 227), but his overall numbers — .220/.332/.357 — are edging closer to last year’s performance, and just at the right time.
Jason Heyward went 1-for-4 with a walk, but also had two hard-hit outs to center field. This, hopefully, is a good sign for him going into October.
While all this was going on, John Lackey, who had given up those two runs in the second, shut the door. Only one other Red reached base after the second inning against him: Joey Votto, who doubled into the ivy with one out in the third. After that Lackey cruised, retiring the last 14 hitters he faced. That made this his best outing since his return from the DL and one of his better starts of the season. And he did it while throwing only 87 pitches (57 strikes). Overall four Cubs pitchers combined for 113 pitches while Reds hurlers threw 182, one of the largest differentials of the year (and of course, Cubs pitchers threw nine innings while the Reds pitched in only eight).
Maddon again mixed and matched a bit over the last two innings, trying pitchers in situations they might face in the postseason. Hector Rondon hit the first batter he faced and then recorded two outs. He could have easily finished the inning, but Joe wanted Mike Montgomery to face Votto, who he got to hit a ground ball to short. Then Montgomery faced the first three batters of the ninth, allowing one hit, before Joe Smith was summoned to record the last out of the game, which he did on a three-pitch strikeout.
Maddon says there’s going to be more of this sort of thing for the balance of the regular season:
"There's going to be a lot of manipulation with the pitching staff the rest of the regular season," Maddon said. "Potentially line things up, look at different people in different roles."
That won't be limited to the pitchers, either.
Maddon said he plans to "be creative with getting people involved (in the lineup)."
Things such as pinch-hitting in out-of-the-ordinary spots and prearranged relief appearances.
"There are all kinds of things we're working on right now to make it a constructive week," Maddon said. "Get a final look at some guys, give them a chance possibly to be in a role they might be utilized in the postseason."
As it should be, at least once the Cardinals series is done:
Manager Joe Maddon said the Cubs plan to play their upcoming series against the Cardinals "straight up." Even though the division is in hand, the Cubs are in the unusual position of being able to play spoiler to playoff hopefuls the last week-plus of the season.
"It's such an awkward situation," Maddon said. "We've never been in this (spot) before. It's our responsibility to play those games straight up."
These quotes show that Maddon understands completely the balance between playing “straight up” in meaningful games, getting his regulars some rest, and getting them accustomed to situations they might find themselves in, in October.
Cubs walk watch: five walks Wednesday bring the season total to 609. The Cubs need 42 walks in their final 10 regular-season games to break the club record.
Also, the Cubs can get to 800 runs if they score 45 over the final 10 games.
Final note on Wednesday’s win: It was the 97th of the season. That ties 2008 and 2015 for the most wins by any Cubs team since the last pennant year, 1945. It was also the Cubs’ 55th home win, which ties the record (set in 2008) for the most wins in one season since they moved to Wrigley Field in 1916. If they can sweep the Cardinals, they’d tie the all-time franchise record for home wins in a season. That record has stood since 1910.
The Cubs reduced their magic number to clinch the league’s best record to two over the Nationals, since the Nats also won Wednesday. Both teams have Thursday off, meaning the earliest the Cubs could nail down home field throughout the N.L. playoffs would be late Friday, if the Cubs beat the Cardinals Friday afternoon and the Nats lose to the Pirates in Pittsburgh in a nighttime contest that day.