In this week’s column, we’ll be taking a look at the game that produced the sixth highest positive WPA score of the year. For this game, we’ll be looking at a game from August 16. The Cubs had split the first two games of a four game set with the Reds. The first game was won by a score of 15-5. Then they lost the second game 2-1. That loss dropped the team’s record to 62-56 with a 1½-game lead in the division.
John Lackey got the start for the Cubs and he put the Cubs in a hole quickly. Billy Hamilton started the game with a double and Zack Cozart walked. Joey Votto followed with a line drive single to load the bases. Eugenio Suarez hit a sacrifice fly to give the Reds a 1-0 lead and Scooter Gennett also lofted what looked like a sacrifice fly to left, but Kyle Schwarber had other ideas and threw out Cozart trying to score and the double play ended the inning with only one run.
The Cubs bats wasted no time at all getting that back against Homer Bailey. Ben Zobrist singled and Schwarber followed with a single of his own. Bryant drew a walk and Anthony Rizzo launched a grand slam to give the Cubs a 4-1 lead before Bailey could record even a single out. He recorded two strikes out while retiring the next three hitters in order.
The Reds loaded the bases in the top of the second on a single, a walk, a balk, and another walk. Sandwiched in there were a runner thrown out at the plate and a fly out and when Cozart flew out, the Cubs got out of the inning without the Reds cutting into their 4-1 lead. Bailey answered by striking out the side in the bottom of the second. Lackey gave up a single in the top of the third, but again escaped without any runs scoring.
In the bottom of the third, Schwarber lead off with a walk but Bryant grounded into a double play. Rizzo then had a two out double and scored on an Alex Avila single to give the Cubs a 5-1 lead. That score would remain the same until the bottom of the sixth when Jason Heyward had a one out walk and then scored on a two out double by Tommy La Stella to give the Cubs a 6-1 lead.
Seemingly, the Cubs had this one completed under control. But, as you might guess this game wouldn’t have yielded a top WPA game if it continued this way. Somewhat surprisingly, this game isn’t on the bottom 10 list as that’s what usually happens when 6-1 leads are squandered.
In the top of the seventh, Hector Rondon relieved John Lackey. He retired the first two batters and things were still sailing along great. Then Phillip Ervin hit a pinch homer to cut the lead to 6-2. Billy Hamilton followed with a single and advanced on a passed ball. And then Zack Cozart hit a two run homer to make it 6-4.
After the Cubs were retired in order in the seventh and Brian Duensing was the next Cubs reliever. He allowed a Eugenio Suarez lead off double and a ground out and then left for Carl Edwards Jr. Edwards was greeted by a Adam Duvall two run homer to tie the game.
That’s where the score remained until the bottom of the ninth. Wandy Peralta had retired the Cubs in order in the eighth and with the score tied, he went back out for a second inning. The first batter he faced was Javier Baez who had batted three times and struck out three times. Javy lead off the ninth inning with a double to left field (.172 WPA). Jon Jay drew a walk and Ben Zobrist came to the plate. He hit a ground ball back to Peralta who threw to first for the first out.
Albert Almora Jr. was the next hitter, and that prompted the Reds to go to the pen. They brought in Blake Wood to face Almora and Wood was able to strike Almora out. That brought 2016 MVP Kris Bryant to the plate with two outs and the winning run on third base. This column documented many times this year the struggles of Bryant in clutch situations. There aren’t many higher leverage spots than this one. But this game wouldn’t be won by Bryant. The Reds hurler uncorked a wild pitch and Baez scampered home with the winning run. The wild pitch was worth (.362 WPA) which gets credited to Baez as the base runner.
The Heroes and Goats column and WPA in general have been tough on Javier Baez in his career. So many of the things he does to help win games don’t get credit via WPA, but on this occasion he produced a WPA of (.511) good enough for the sixth biggest positive WPA game of the season.
It’s hard not to love Javier Baez and his youthful, aggressive style of play. He is a supremely talented player who seems to have a highlight reel play in almost every game. This was one of a couple of walk off runs Javy scored on this same homestand. You may recall we chronicled the one he scored in the tenth inning against the Blue Jays on 8/20 earlier in this series. Both of these games came during a stretch of 25 consecutive complete games he played at short while Addison Russell recovered from injury during which Baez hit .290/.347/.516.
I’m sure many Cubs fans and some people in the Cubs front office are keenly aware that when he was given a chance to play every day Javier performed at All-star level. It will be interesting to see how he is utilized in 2018. Will he finally take over second base full time? Will he see time at short? If Baez is playing every day, where will Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ get their playing time? With the supremely talented Cubs core, these questions will always come up. I’ll be watching to see how that plays out next year.
Next week, we’ll take another look at one of the biggest negative WPA games of the year as we look at the fifth biggest negative WPA score of the year. For that one, we’ll be looking at another relief effort. It occurred one day after the sixth biggest WPA score of the year as the Cubs bullpen struggled in the early going. Later this week, I’ll be back with a look back at the 1984 Cubs. That one will feature the Sandberg game. Until then, thanks for reading.