ST. LOUIS — Two games into the 2017 season and I already feel like I’ve been through a couple of playoff series.
There’s a lot to unpack from this exciting win, but let’s begin with the play depicted at the top of this recap:
The signature part of Albert Almora Jr.’s game is his defense; he made quite a number of fine plays in center field last season but that one stands out as the best of his young career — for now, anyway! With the Cubs clinging to a 2-1 lead and one out in the seventh inning, the catch stands as the play of the young season and who knows? It might wind up as the catch of the year. More:
Almora got congratulations from everyone in the dugout after the inning, especially from starter Jake Arrieta:
#Cubs Arrieta: "The catch to rob the homer was a game saver. I owe Almora something for that."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 5, 2017
#Cubs Almora: "The moment of the night was when I came in and Jake gave me a big hug. That's awesome."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) April 5, 2017
For his part, Jake looked a lot more like the Jake! of 2015 in his first 2017 outing, and that’s excellent news. He retired the first nine batters he faced before Dexter Fowler dumped a little single into left field leading off the fourth. But Jake set down the next three hitters. Until Randal Grichuk flew out to center with one out in the fourth, no Cardinal had hit a ball out of the infield.
All of this was with Willson Contreras catching Jake. It’s well known that Jake prefers Miguel Montero behind the plate, and with an afternoon game scheduled Wednesday, it was a bit of a surprise to not see Miggy catching Jake, since it would seem likely that Willson would get the day game off anyway.
But it all worked out and Jake had a fine outing.
The Cubs had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth. Jason Heyward singled in the first run on a single quite a bit like Fowler’s, and Javier Baez laid down a perfect safety squeeze bunt for a second run.
The Cardinals scored once in the fifth, and I have to feel a bit sorry for Stephen Piscotty, who got hit with baseballs three times in the inning. First, Jake hit him on the right elbow on a 3-1 slider. With two out, Piscotty tried to steal second and got hit again, this time on the left elbow. Kolten Wong then hit a ball to Baez, who misplayed it. That gave Piscotty a chance to try to score, and Baez’ throw inadvertently hit Piscotty in the head. Here are all three “hits” described by ABC News:
OUCH: Cardinals outfielder Steven Piscotty suffered a head injury after being hit 3 times in just one inning! pic.twitter.com/WL0fd8BbG5— ABC World News Now (@abcWNN) April 5, 2017
Piscotty left the game, and in a way that set up Almora’s heroics, because it was Matt Adams who hit the ball Almora caught. Adams had pinch-hit for Adam Wainwright after the play at the plate involving Piscotty. He walked, but no further damage happened in the inning when Jake struck out Fowler to end it.
Adams, who had never played anywhere but first base in his professional career, stayed in the game in left field.
The Cardinals threatened again in the sixth. With one out, Matt Carpenter hit a line drive to right on which Jason Heyward made a fine running catch, something I don’t want to have go unmentioned in all the hubbub surrounding Almora’s grab. If Heyward doesn’t make that catch the Cardinals might have broken the game open in that inning, because they went on to load the bases on two singles and a walk. With Justin Grimm loosening up, Jake got Grichuk to pop to short to end the inning. Loud cheers erupted from the Cubs fans in the Busch Stadium full house, about half the house from what I could tell.
But the Cubs could do no more offensively. After the fourth inning they had just five baserunners, none getting past second base. In the ninth, there was another automatic walk issued. With Ben Zobrist (who had walked as a pinch-hitter) on second, Jonathan Broxton ran a 2-0 count on Kyle Schwarber. At that point Mike Matheny ordered Schwarber intentionally walked. In the ballpark, I can tell you there was a bit of confusion as to what was going on when Matheny signaled the automatic walk, and a bit of hesitation before Schwarber took his base. Everyone will get used to this eventually.
But the Cubs could score no more, and that brought on Wade Davis for his first save opportunity as a Cub.
As you know, Davis had a bad spring. I had been quite concerned that perhaps he wasn’t 100 percent healthy. But he looked all right in this inning. Yadier Molina hit the ball hard, but right at Anthony Rizzo. Davis walked pinch-hitter Jose Martinez, but then got Grichuk to bounce a ball right to Kris Bryant. The play set up a bit too slowly to be a double play.
Wong was next. Wong hit a ground ball that appeared headed to right field, but Javier Baez made a diving stop and off-balance throw that just got Wong, or so said first-base umpire Quinn Wolcott [VIDEO].
The Cardinals challenged the play but it was ruled “call confirmed” and the Cubs had their win.
You didn’t think defending a World Series title would be easy, did you? One thing that’s different about this year is the early schedule. In 2016, the Cubs’ first nine games were against the Angels, Diamondbacks and Reds. All of those teams lost at least 88 games last year. The Cubs’ 8-1 start against them was a real strong confidence-builder.
This year’s first nine games won’t be as easy, not against the Cardinals, Brewers and Dodgers. A win like this one, though, can serve as a confidence-builder nonetheless. The first two games of this season have shown that this Cubs team never gives up. But you knew that already, right?
Weather permitting, the teams will play the rubber match of this three-game series Wednesday afternoon at 12:45 p.m. CT. The game preview will post at 11 a.m. CT.