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Cubs 7, Diamondbacks 2: Back on top

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And here, my friends, is a pennant race.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nervous yet? Excited? Thrilled with Sunday’s win?

Because this is what late-season baseball feels like. Every inning, every pitch is magnified when teams that are chasing yours are only a game, or two, or three behind.

The Cubs really haven’t experienced a true pennant race since the 2003 season, when they didn’t take over first place for good until the last week of the season and clinched on the second-to-last day. (I’m not counting 2004, because that was a wild-card race, not for first place, and the Cubs choked that one away.)

Sunday’s 7-2 win over the Diamondbacks was exactly the kind of game that playoff contenders win, and need to win. Coupled with the Cardinals’ loss to the Braves, that puts the Cubs one game ahead as they begin a homestand Monday against one of their favorite opponents, the Reds.

In the first inning, a single and a walk after two were out put runners on first and second. Then this happened:

Strike three to Victor Caratini got away from Chris Iannetta and Kris Bryant never stopped running. There’s a lot of ground behind home plate at Chase Field and though Iannetta did manage a throw, Bryant beat it to score the Cubs’ first run.

The Cubs added a run in the second. Javier Baez singled and was sacrificed to second by Jake Arrieta. Jon Jay doubled him in to make it 2-0.

Meanwhile, Jake was dealing. He allowed just three hits and three walks in six innings. The walks hurt him in the fifth; two walks and a sac bunt put runners on second and third with one out, and David Peralta delivered a sacrifice fly to make it 2-1.

Jake Lamb led off the sixth with a single, but Jake got Paul Goldschmidt to hit into a double play, probably the key play of the game defensively.

Here’s how good Jake has been lately:

That’s definitely as good as first-half 2016 Jake, and isn’t too far off of second-half 2015 Jake. If he can keep this up the rest of the year, the Cubs rotation will be in fine shape. On June 27 Jake’s ERA was 4.67, and after this run it stands at 3.73, nearly a full run lower. Personally, I think I would have sent Jake out for the seventh inning and saved the bullpen, as he had thrown only 91 pitches. but Carl Edwards Jr. had an efficient 1-2-3 inning, getting the first out on a line drive and then two K’s, including a really nice curveball that struck out Ketel Marte:

The game was pretty close and tense up to the eighth. In that inning, Victor Caratini led off with a single. Albert Almora Jr. was called out on a very close play at first which was challenged but upheld. Caratini took second, which led the D-backs to intentionally pass Jason Heyward. That brought up Javier Baez:

That ball: CRUSHED!

Suddenly, every Cubs fan exhaled a sigh of relief. Javy’s homer made it 5-1 and three pitches later, Ian Happ (batting for Edwards) made it 6-1:

Bryant finally broke out of his home-run drought with this long blast leading off the ninth:

And a particular shout-out to Bryant for an amazing performance in this series. He went 9-for-11 with three walks, a HBP, two doubles, the home run, four RBI and three runs scored. Perhaps that home run, his 21st, will begin a streak of them for him, particularly since he gets to feast on Reds pitching for the next four games. Here’s what he’s done recently:

Pedro Strop threw an uneventful eighth and Brian Duensing and Wade Davis finished things off in the ninth. Davis was called on, undoubtedly, because he had not pitched in six days and needed the work. Davis gave up the obligatory homer to Goldschmidt and then finished up the last two outs, though not after allowing a couple of baserunners. It was a somewhat-typical outing for a closer in a non-save situation.

The only downside was another K-filled day by Kyle Schwarber, who has now struck out in his last seven at-bats. He might need a day or so break.

The Cubs rarely do well on Western swings, so the 3-3 mark on this trip is actually pretty good. Winning a series in Chase Field is also a rare occurrence for a Cubs team, though they have now done it two straight years and are 5-2 there since the beginning of 2016. Also, winning a series in Chase Field has been tough for road teams this year. The D-backs came into this series with the second-best home record in the major leagues. Only the Rockies, Cardinals and Dodgers had won series there this year before the Cubs came in and did exactly that. Well done.

So to sum up Sunday’s action: Cubs win, Cardinals lose, Brewers win, Pirates lose. Thus the Cubs now lead the Cardinals by one game, the Brewers by two and the Pirates by four. Seven weeks to go, so fasten your seat belts.

Revisiting just for a moment the controversy regarding the way Saturday’s game ended, here’s something from ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers:

Before todays game, last nights home plate umpire Mark Wegner sought out Joe Maddon to thank him for acting professional about the strike 3 call on Ben Zobrist which ended the game. He also admitted he made a mistake on the call. Espn Stats and Info says the pitch had a 22 percent strike probability.

With human eyes, the call could have gone either way. Even with an electronic zone, it all depends

Monday evening, the Cubs return to Wrigley Field to begin a seven-game homestand which starts with a four-game series against the Reds. Jose Quintana will go for the Cubs and Asher Wojciechowski for the Reds.