Think you can stand another five weeks of tension like this?
This one didn’t start out well. John Lackey allowed yet another first-inning run. We haven’t talked about this in a while, but that makes 20 first-inning runs (19 earned) for Lackey in 29 starts this year, a 5.90 ERA. He made it worse in the second inning by serving up back-to-back homers to Stephen Vogt and Brett Phillips, the 35th and 36th home runs he’s allowed this year. The next-most allowed by any N.L. pitcher is 30 (Gerrit Cole, Julio Teheran), and the most allowed by any Cubs pitcher since Jon Lieber also allowed 36, in 2000. The franchise record is 38, by Warren Hacker in 1955, a record I’d just as soon see remain standing forever.
So it’s 3-0 heading to the third and Brewers rookie starter Brandon Woodruff is dealing, at speeds up to 98 miles per hour. But the second time through the order, Cubs hitters started dealing with Woodruff. Jason Heyward singled and was forced by Javier Baez. Lackey sacrificed Baez to second, and that brought up Jon Jay:
2-out RBI double for Jon Jay. pic.twitter.com/0WgUgCzmIW— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 23, 2017
Next up, Kris Bryant:
Another clutch hit for Kris Bryant. pic.twitter.com/yo97IX0a5P— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 23, 2017
Just like that, the Cubs cut the deficit to one. It might have been more, but Ben Zobrist’s blooper was caught on a nice grab by Eric Sogard. Two innings later, they took the lead. Jay singled — on the 15th pitch of his at-bat! — and Bryant was hit by a pitch. An infield out put them on second and third. Zobrist got another shot at driving in runs:
This is when Joe Maddon started managing this one like a postseason game. Remember how upset Lackey was when he was taken out early during postseason games last year? I can’t imagine he was happy when Joe came to get him with nobody out in the fifth, 77 pitches thrown, after Lackey had allowed a leadoff single to Sogard.
Brian Duensing entered and got Neil Walker to hit into a double play, but Ryan Braun doubled, followed by another double by Travis Shaw, and the game was tied.
The Cubs had a chance in the sixth when Albert Almora Jr., batting for Kyle Schwarber (more postseason-style managing!) singled and was sacrificed to second, but he was stranded. Duensing finished his outing with a 1-2-3 sixth and Hector Rondon, pitching for the first time in two weeks, had a 1-2-3 seventh, and looked good doing it, with excellent velocity and throwing just 11 pitches.
I can’t emphasize enough how meaningful that inning could be. If Rondon can return to his previous level of performance, that gives Joe one more reliable reliever to use in October.
Mike Montgomery threw a 1-2-3 eighth. In the ninth, Baez was called out on a close play after sliding into first base, but it was overturned on review:
Unfortunately, Willson Contreras grounded into a double play. Contreras wasn’t even supposed to be playing Friday night, as Joe was resting him for the early game today, but as he did Thursday, Maddon used a lot of players in double switches.
Montgomery recorded the first out in the ninth. He looked as sharp as he had Tuesday night in Tampa; even with just two days’ rest, MiMo threw strikes (11 in 14 pitches) and retired all four batters he faced. When the Brewers sent up Jesus Aguilar to pinch-hit, Carl Edwards Jr. was summoned. He struck out Aguilar and Phillips and on they went to extras for the second straight night.
Bryant walked and Rizzo singled and then, curiously, Craig Counsell ordered Ben Zobrist intentionally passed. I thought this was quite peculiar — loading the bases with nobody out? Leonys Martin, another of Joe’s double-switch guys, was next. Brewers closer Corey Knebel struck him out. I couldn’t help thinking maybe Martin should have tried a squeeze.
Joe then sent Tommy La Stella up to bat for Almora. Entering the game, TLS had drawn nine walks in 39 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter (as well as seven pinch hits). There were a couple of really close pitches thrown to TLS, but he’s got excellent strike-zone judgment and when Knebel threw ball four, the Cubs had a 5-4 lead. They could not score further, and so CJ calmly walked to the mound to try to nail this one down.
Nothing’s ever easy, right? CJ walked Hernan Perez. Sogard followed by hitting into a force play. And then...
Sogard comes off the bag! He's out! pic.twitter.com/gwIo3vHHgV— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 23, 2017
You can see Sogard’s hand come off second base while Addison Russell (who’d come in for defense) keeps his glove on Sogard’s leg. Out was the call on the field by Dana DeMuth (who was in excellent position), and after the Brewers challenged, it was ruled “call confirmed,” a terrific play by Addy.
One out to go, and CJ got Walker to hit a routine fly to left and the Cubs had another hard-fought victory. They’re 24-15 in one-run games and 6-2 in extra innings and now lead the season series over the Brewers 9-8 with two games to go. The latter is important in the now-unlikely event of a divisional tie with the Brewers; the winner of the season series would host a tiebreaker game. (The Cubs have already won the season series against the Cardinals, leading 11-4 with four games to go.)
It also put the Cubs at a season-high 19 games over .500. Since the All-Star break the Cubs are 43-22, second only to the Indians (49-18) for the best record in baseball over that time span.
These two wins have not been easy, but the Cubs showed resilience and made key plays on both offense and defense when they needed to. This clearly shows the “WE NEVER QUIT” mantra that was emblazoned on the 2016 World Series rings is still there, and especially now, when the team needs it most.
The Cubs’ win, coupled with the Cardinals’ win over the Pirates, moved St. Louis ahead of Milwaukee into second place in the N.L. Central. The Brewers’ elimination number is four, meaning the Cubs can eliminate them by winning the next two games. However, the Cardinals’ elimination number is five. That means the earliest possible Cubs division-clinching date is Monday in St. Louis, and the Cubs would need help from the Pirates the next two days in order to do that.
First things first. A reminder that today’s game was switched from a 6:10 p.m. CT start to 12:05 CT for Fox-TV. Kyle Hendricks goes for the Cubs and Brent Suter for the Brewers. The game preview will post at 10:30 a.m. CT.