The Cubs came off last weekend’s sweep at the hands of the Brewers just two games ahead of them and the Cardinals and knowing they’d have to play better to put a stronger hold on first place in the N.L. Central.
One week later, riding a six-game winning streak after a tense 4-3 win over the Cardinals Sunday afternoon, the Cubs appear in charge of their own destiny in the division. They moved to a season-high 17 games over .500 and again used good defense, timely hitting and good relief pitching to beat their arch-rivals.
As had been the case in the previous two games of this series, strong pitching on both sides began this game. Jose Quintana breezed through three innings, retiring nine of the first 10 hitters he faced. He was helped out by this slick sliding stop and throw [VIDEO] by Addison Russell, in Addy’s first start since coming off the disabled list. The Cubs got on the board in the bottom of the third on a single by Jason Heyward, a walk to Russell, a sacrifice by Quintana and a groundout by Ben Zobrist. The Cubs could have had more, as Kris Bryant beat out a ground ball for an infield hit and Anthony Rizzo walked to load the bases with two out, but Alex Avila struck out to end the inning.
The Cardinals then loaded the bases on two singles and a Bryant error with one out in the fourth. The crowd groaned, but on the very next pitch after the error, Yadier Molina hit into an inning-ending double play.
Kyle Schwarber made it 2-0 leading off the fourth and that one, to the opposite field, bounced right up near our group:
Here’s who got that ball:
Albert Almora Jr. followed with a single, but Heyward hit into a double play. The Cubs weren’t done that inning, though; Russell and Quintana both walked (Q’s first walk as a hitter since 2012 and just second of his career), and Zobrist’s single scored Russell to make it 3-0.
Quintana had a 1-2-3 fourth, but then ran into trouble when Schwarber couldn’t handle Matt Carpenter’s bloop to left, which fell for a double. Two strikeouts and a walk later, our old friend Dexter Fowler smashed a three-run homer into the left-field bleachers. That was just the second home run Fowler has hit batting righthanded this year, and the game was tied at 3. The Cardinals got two more runners on base on a double and a hit batter, and that was it for Quintana. Carl Edwards Jr. was summoned to face Randal Grichuk, who entered this game hitting .387/.441/.935 (12-for-31) with five home runs against the Cubs this year. Yikes.
But CJ struck out Grichuk and the game went to the last of the sixth tied. The Cubs got the first two runners on base in that inning, a double by Heyward and single by Russell, but could not score. In the seventh, the Cardinals had runners on first and second with one out, but Pedro Strop got out of the jam he’d made for himself.
And then Anthony Rizzo’s jersey helped the Cubs start the winning rally. Ball one was called, but Joe Maddon asked for a review, and sure enough, Tyler Lyons’ pitch had brushed Rizzo’s right sleeve [VIDEO].
Javier Baez batted for Avila and singled. Schwarber popped up and pinch-hitter Ian Happ, perhaps a bit overanxious, hit into a force play, putting Rizzo on third with two out.
J-Hey gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead!
J-Hey with the clutch hit! pic.twitter.com/bxyEdCP26U— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 17, 2017
He ran the count full, then sliced a ball to left for his third hit of the game. Heyward did some real good work at the plate Sunday afternoon and since August 28 he’s hitting .317/.373/.467 (19-for-60) with three doubles and two home runs. That’s really good. Keep it up, J-Hey.
Then it was up to a bullpen that had to be running on fumes. Brian Duensing gave up a leadoff single to Fowler, then got Molina to hit into yet another double play. But then he loaded the bases on a walk, single and intentional pass — Grichuk, who singled, had taken second when Happ threw to third instead of keeping the trailing runner at first.
But Duensing then struck out Carpenter to keep the lead at 4-3:
The Cubs couldn’t score off Juan Nicasio in the eighth, so it was up to Wade Davis, throwing in his third consecutive game, to save it. Tommy Pham led off with a single, but a popup and soft liner put the Cubs one out away from a sweep.
For the second straight game, it was Fowler in the batter’s box as the potential game-ending out. Saturday, he was hit by a pitch, forcing Davis to retire Molina to end it.
Sunday... well, this didn’t look good off the bat and Davis thought he’d blown it, check out his reaction:
Wade Davis thought it was gone. SWEEP! pic.twitter.com/w5EEPwYpDd— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 17, 2017
The ball didn’t carry; whether it was the wind or the heavy air, it settled near the warning track and Leonys Martin calmly caught it for a Cubs win and sweep. (Check out Fowler’s reaction in the video, too.)
Did #Cubs Maddon think Fowler's ball in last at-bat was out? "I did. Then I looked up and oh, the flag. Thank you."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 17, 2017
And Davis? "I thought it was off the scoreboard. I thought it was for sure gone." (That's on Fowler's last at-bat) #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 17, 2017
After a rough weekend just one week ago, the Cubs are now the hottest team in baseball, and reduced their magic number to 10 over the Brewers, who defeated the Marlins Sunday afternoon. (Aside: I don’t want to hear the Brewers complain about schedules again... ever.)
Earlier in the day, Willson Contreras had his suspension reduced to one game and served it Sunday. Fortunately, the Cubs won without him and Willson got a day off that he might have received anyway, and now we move on with him returning for action Tuesday.
The magic number over the Cardinals is now eight. This team appears, at last, to be playing up to their talent level, to do whatever they need to in order to produce victories. Sunday’s game went three hours and 44 minutes and not once did that length mean anything; the game was tense, generally well-played and thoroughly entertaining (well, maybe not for Cardinals fans). The Cubs are now 11-4 against the Cardinals this year and this win sets up a potential division clincher (and yes, I think we can now talk about that) either next weekend in Milwaukee or early the following week in St. Louis, and wouldn’t either of those be delicious?
There seemed to be fewer Cardinals fans than usual at this series; perhaps their fans didn’t quite see this as a possible playoff season and stayed away. Those who did come were generally good-natured and I didn’t see any incidents in the stands. That’s a good thing.
So is this Cubs season. It’s been a struggle at times but things seem to be coming together nicely. One point I’d like to make about Joe Maddon getting guys rest during the year so they’ll be fresh down the stretch — it works:
#Cubs after all-star break under Joe Maddon— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 17, 2017
2015: 50-25 (.667)
2016: 50-23 (.685)
2017: 40-21 (.656)
The Cubs head to Tampa Bay to finish up interleague play with a two-game set against the Rays beginning Tuesday evening, and I’m sure all the Cubs players could use the rest before they play 13 games in 13 days to end the regular season.
Tuesday evening, Jon Lester will throw against Rays ace Chris Archer.