The Cubs came into Saturday’s game riding a three-game losing streak and with their lead in the N.L. Central cut to just half a game.
Thus winning was pretty important. And win they did, 7-4 over the Nationals, with key home runs and some... well, not-so-solid relief pitching. More on that anon.
John Lackey came into this game second in the National League in home runs allowed with 26. And it took him just 10 pitches to tie that “race” up with Atlanta’s Julio Teheran when Bryce Harper smacked a ball off the right-field video board for a 1-0 Nats lead.
Fortunately for the Cubs, our old buddy Edwin Jackson was pitching. And the Cubs came out in the bottom of the first with an aggressive approach. Jon Jay lined a double into the left-field corner, and Kris Bryant’s double to center tied the game. One out later, a Willson Contreras single gave the Cubs a 2-1 lead.
Ben Zobrist followed with another single, and Contreras decided to continue the aggressive play by trying to take third.
Harper — man, he’s good at every phase of the game. He fired a laser beam to Anthony Rendon and Contreras was out.
Alex Avila was next:
Alex Avila belts a two-run home run to center field to plate Ben Zobrist, giving the Cubs a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the 1st inning!!! pic.twitter.com/WRBZ6pFgVJ— TheRenderMLB (@TheRenderMLB) August 5, 2017
Avila’s first homer as a Cub — and first, period, since June 28 — put the Cubs ahead 4-1. Sure, it could have been more if Willson doesn’t get thrown out, but it took a perfect throw from Harper to get him.
After that? Well, E-Jax started to pitch well. Really well. The next 10 Cubs went down in order, six of them by strikeout. Where was this Jackson when he was in blue pinstripes?
While this was going on, the Nats scored a pair of runs in the fourth to make it 4-3, and Lackey was removed after the fifth inning for pinch-hitter Kyle Schwarber with Javier Baez on base. Unfortunately, Schwarber struck out. Lackey’s day wasn’t bad, really; he threw five credible innings and has been good lately:
#Cubs Lackey 4-0 with 3.00 ERA since All-Star break. Since 2015, he's 14-8 with 2.65 ERA in 2nd half— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 5, 2017
That’s the kind of second-half pitching the Cubs will need from him. Hopefully, he keeps this up.
So it’s 4-3 heading into the sixth. Brian Duensing, who has been lights-out since a rough April, threw a 1-2-3 sixth. Since June 22 Duensing has made 19 appearances without allowing a run. He’s thrown 15⅓ innings over that span and allowed nine hits and two walks (0.717 WHIP) and struck out 17. He’s been a terrific pickup for Theo & Co.
And the Cubs gave some breathing room to the pitching staff in the bottom of the sixth. Anthony Rizzo led off with a single and then it was Willson’s turn:
That ball: Crushed!
Contreras has become the emotional leader of this team and his hitting over the last few weeks has been nothing short of incredible:
#Cubs Contreras is batting .327 with 14 HRs, 43 RBI since June 16. He's tied with Riz for team lead with 21 multi-RBI games this year— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 5, 2017
Also, his 68 RBI lead all major-league catchers, although Saturday’s three-RBI game was produced as a left fielder.
So it’s 6-3 heading to the seventh. Leading off that inning was supposed to be Nats catcher Matt Wieters, but they sent up a pinch-hitter, which seemed odd until word came that Wieters had been ejected, reportedly for jawing about this pitch:
Gotta admit, he had a point. Truth be told, plate umpire Chad Whitson appeared to be squeezing both sides at times all game.
Anyway, in that inning Pedro Strop allowed a two-out walk but was not scored on, and the Cubs added another run in the bottom of the frame. Ian Happ batted for Strop and singled. He stole second, and that brought up Jay [VIDEO].
The Chief Justice’s single made it 7-3. Easy-peasy from here with Justin Wilson lined up for the eighth, right? That’s what Wilson’s here for, right?
So far... I have not been impressed with Justin Wilson. He allowed a run in his first Cubs appearance and gave up the runs that tied Thursday’s game with the Diamondbacks.
The first one was a “clean” inning, the second one wasn’t, and Saturday, Wilson had another “clean” inning, coming in at the start of a frame with a four-run lead.
That didn’t work. It took just two pitches for Harper to single off Wilson and then he issued a four-pitch walk to Ryan Zimmerman. And remember, in this one he’s throwing to Avila, a catcher he’s familiar with.
Daniel Murphy was next; he popped up to Bryant in foul territory and trust me, this was not an easy play [VIDEO].
Hey, if you’re one of those fans in the first couple of rows: GET OUT OF KRIS’ WAY!
I was surprised that Joe didn’t call on Hector Rondon to face Anthony Rendon, given the possible righty-righty matchup and that Wilson was struggling. Wilson did get Rendon to hit a possible double-play ball, but Baez’s relay got away from Anthony Rizzo and Harper scored. Truth be told, Baez probably should have eaten the ball; that would have kept Harper at third.
At last, Wilson got Adam Lind to ground to second to end the inning with a three-run lead.
If the lead is four, does Joe call on Wade Davis in the ninth? Maybe Rondon or Mike Montgomery, both of whom were warming in the eighth, enter if it’s not a save situation.
But a save situation it was, and thus it was Davis time, and after he got pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick to ground out, he lost command. He walked Jose Lobaton, who came into the game hitting .159 and who had eight walks in 110 plate appearances. I mean, come on. Then he walked Brian Goodwin, who had 20 walks in 241 plate appearances entering the game.
Seriously, you just can’t walk guys like this.
After that, though, Davis appeared to re-focus. He struck out Wilmer Difo, and then got Harper on an offspeed pitch to end the game and register his 23rd save, with no blown saves. He’s already set the single-season Cubs record for such things, and the multi-year franchise record is 26, held by Ryan Dempster.
The bad thing is that Davis had to throw 30 pitches to get out of that inning, so he might not be available Sunday.
In any case, though, the Cubs did win the game and evened up their series. They’ll maintain first place no matter what the Brewers do against the Rays (at the time I wrote this recap, Milwaukee had a 1-0 lead late in that game). Sunday’s game thus becomes important for this reason: The winner will take the season series between the Cubs and Nats. It appears these two teams might be headed for a first-round playoff matchup. If the Cubs and Nats wind up tied with the same regular-season record, the winner of the season series between the teams would get home field for a Division Series.
Sunday’s game might be interrupted at time by rainshowers, though likely not as strong as the ones that came through Thursday. Given that these teams don’t meet again, as they did Thursday they’ll do everything they can to get the game in Sunday afternoon.
Jon Lester goes for the Cubs and rookie Erick Fedde, who’ll be making his second big-league start, starts for the Nationals. The game preview will post Sunday at 11:30 a.m. CT.