They have done just that, in decisive fashion, and over the last two days have looked a lot like the team that won it all in 2016. That’s not hype, either, that’s how I really see it. And if, as Kris Bryant said, it took the incident with John Lackey and Willson Contreras Friday afternoon to light a fire under this team — well, whatever it takes.
The Cubs got an outstanding outing from Kyle Hendricks, three big hits from Albert Almora Jr., good defensive plays when they needed them, and a welcome-back pinch homer by Addison Russell and defeated the Cardinals 4-1 for their fifth straight win.
Hendricks retired the first six Cardinals before a pair of hits and a sacrifice bunt put St. Louis runners on second and third with one out in the third. A walk loaded the bases, but Hendricks got Tommy Pham to ground sharply to Javier Baez, who started an inning-ending double play, probably the most important defensive play of the game.
The Cubs broke through for two runs in the fourth. Anthony Rizzo singled and Contreras walked. That brought up Almora. His RBI single [VIDEO] made it 1-0, and Ian Happ followed with another RBI single [VIDEO] to make it 2-0 Cubs.
Those runs followed this slick pickoff of Jose Martinez by Hendricks in the top of the fourth:
That one went to the review crew, where it was clear that Rizzo had touched Martinez’s arm just before his hand landed on first base. Also:
Call is reversed and Kyle Hendricks has another pickoff. That's 14 since 2015, most in baseball during that span.— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) September 16, 2017
That’s really, really impressive. Considering that most pitchers who have a lot of pickoffs are lefthanded, for Hendricks to lead all pitchers over the last (almost) three full seasons is outstanding.
The Cubs added another run in the fifth. Almora comes through again!
AA added yet another double in the seventh inning, and his 3-for-4 afternoon put his BA just short of the .300 mark at .299. And:
Albert Almora Jr: 6 hits (5 XBH), 14 TB, 10 RBI in last 8 PA#Cubs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 16, 2017
I’d say he’s earned some more regular playing time, wouldn’t you?
Meanwhile, Hendricks was mowing down Cardinals hitters on weak contact. After the pickoff just one Cardinals runner got past first base in the fifth, sixth and seventh, and so Kyle was sent out to throw the eighth. He nearly completed it, but ran out of gas when Matt Carpenter homered with two out. Hendricks left to a standing ovation and Carl Edwards Jr. struck out Pham to end the inning.
Another standing ovation was afforded Russell when he led off the bottom of the eighth, batting for CJ, his first plate appearance in nearly six weeks. My friend Dave had just asked me why Russell hadn’t had any rehab at-bats when this happened:
Russell's first game back and goes deep! pic.twitter.com/4gtJ6eDnn7— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) September 16, 2017
Here’s what happened to that baseball:
It was measured at 437 feet, Russell’s longest of the season, and he stayed in the game to play shortstop in the ninth. Wade Davis entered for the save and struck out the first two hitters he faced before he hit Dexter Fowler on a 1-2 pitch, really the last thing he wanted to do. Fowler was slowly taking off toward second base and Russell started trotting in that direction, so he was in perfect position to snag this line drive off Yadier Molina’s bat to end it:
It was Davis’ 30th save of the season. That’s the 19th 30-save season in Cubs history, tying Hector Rondon, who had 30 in 2015. Next up: Ted Abernathy (1965), Bruce Sutter (1977) and Lee Smith (1986) with 31.
Fowler got a nice round of applause when he came to bat for the first time. Not so for umpire Jordan Baker. Usually the pregame announcement of the umpires isn’t even noticed, but in this one, Baker’s name was roundly booed.
You no doubt noted earlier the suspension of Contreras for two games (appealed, so he can play, for now) and fine for Lackey from Friday’s incident. Further to that:
#Cubs Contreras said he needed to talk to ump Baker: "I did something wrong, and that wasn't me, that was the adrenaline from the game." 1/2— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2017
#Cubs Contreras: "I needed to apologize. Nobody's perfect. That was part of my job today was to apologize to everybody and move on" 2/2— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2017
That’s the right thing to do. Further, though:
Maddon would like to see Contreras tone down his emotions. Willie: "No, I won't tone it down. That's my way to be, that's how I play" #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2017
I agree with Willson. That’s who he is, and his emotional play helps him and the team. That said, he’s got to stay within himself and know when to show that emotion, and when to hold it in. He’s still young and will eventually learn how to do this.
This satisfying win on another gorgeous late-summer afternoon took the series from the Cardinals and put them five games out of first place. Their elimination number dropped to 10. The Cubs also reached their high-water mark of the season at 16 games over .500 and clinched a winning season with their 82nd win. That marks the third straight year the Cubs have had a winning season, just the third time they have done that since 1945 (1967-72, 2007-09 and 2015-17). And, at this writing the Brewers are trailing the Marlins 6-1 in the fourth inning; if Milwaukee loses they will be four games out and the Cubs’ magic number will be 11.
One neighborhood note: I’d like to call out Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) for a truly dumb decision. The Lakeview Taco Fest is this weekend. That means Southport Avenue is closed from Addison to Roscoe. Hey, Tom: Who decided this would be a good idea on a weekend the Cubs are home playing the Cardinals? Traffic was badly gridlocked in the area postgame. Why this wasn’t scheduled for next weekend is beyond me.
The Cubs go for the sweep and their sixth win in a row Sunday afternoon with Jose Quintana facing Lance Lynn.