The Cubs’ seventh consecutive win moved their record to 84-66. They were 3½ games ahead of the Brewers, in first place in the N.L. Central, and their magic number to clinch the division title was reduced to nine.
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Here’s a paragraph you likely weren’t expecting to read at the beginning of this season:
Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and the Cubs rode solid relief pitching and the hardest-hit home run (per Statcast) of Kyle Schwarber’s career to a 2-1 win over the Rays, their seventh win in a row and first ever at Tropicana Field.
Wait, what? Mike Montgomery with a no-hit bid?
Yet that’s exactly what a crowd at Tropicana Field that had to be at least two-thirds Cubs fans saw Tuesday night. In fact, if MiMo hadn’t hit the first batter he faced and if Addison Russell hadn’t rushed a throw to first in the fourth inning, he might have been working on a perfect game.
More on that in a bit. First, have a look at Schwarber’s second-inning home run, his 28th of the season:
So not only was that the hardest-hit home run of Schwarber’s career, but it was the hardest-hit home run any Cub has hit in the Statcast era. As I like to say:
That ball: Crushed!
And no doubt, you heard all the Cubs fans in the crowd at the Trop roaring loudly at that hit.
Also, Kyle since his recall from Iowa: .253/.338/.567 (45-for-178) with six doubles, a triple and 16 home runs. That’s really, really good (21 walks and .905 OPS in 201 PA).
Oh, about Kevin Kiermaier, who was hit by that pitch leading off the bottom of the first and who advanced to second on a fly to center? He tried to steal third. Bad idea, Kevin:
Honestly, I thought Willson Contreras’ throw had no chance of getting Kiermaier, who got an enormous jump off second. But Willson and Javy did Willson and Javy things, and Baez, who was starting at third base for the first time in almost two months (July 21 vs. the Cardinals), made another one of his amazing tags, and the first inning was over.
Montgomery kept mowing Rays hitters down and in the fourth, Javy came up with a runner on first and one out:
The line-drive double scored Addison Russell to make it 2-0.
Montgomery lost his no-hitter with one out in the sixth. Brad Miller smashed a baseball that Jon Jay and Jason Heyward both went back on, but it went off the hitters’ background for a home run. Montgomery calmly set down the final two Rays to complete six one-hit innings with six strikeouts, no walks and just 81 pitches. With Jake Arrieta scheduled to return to the rotation Thursday (as long as an evaluation Wednesday goes well), Montgomery could be available in the bullpen by the weekend.
The Cubs might have increased their lead in the seventh, except for two incidents, one self-induced. Ian Happ singled leading off the inning and ill-advisedly tried to take second. He was thrown out; Joe Maddon used a challenge to send it to review, where it remained “call stands”:
One out later, Addison Russell sent a ball to deep center field, where Kiermaier showed why he’s considered one of the best defensive center fielders in the game:
Kiermaier robs Addison Russell of a hit. pic.twitter.com/gxCuj8mynL— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 20, 2017
Tip o’ the cap due there — outstanding defense that kept the score 2-1.
This left everything up to the Cubs bullpen, which has had its troubles recently. Not on Tuesday, though: Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis (32nd save) were perfect, retiring all nine batters they faced, five by strikeout. Here are all three K’s recorded by Davis:
Wade Davis strikes out the side! 7 in a row! pic.twitter.com/AjH7IwemVR— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 20, 2017
So Miller’s home run was the only thing standing between the Cubs and a no-hitter. It was the first Cubs one-hitter since September 12, 2016 in St. Louis, when Kyle Hendricks took a no-no into the ninth inning and also had it broken up with a home run, that one by Jeremy Hazelbaker.
The crowd of 25,046, mostly Cubs fans as noted above, was the Rays’ second-largest home crowd of the 2017 season. Only their Opening Day attendance, 31,042 against the Yankees, has been larger. The Rays treated the assembled with a between-innings video on the Trop’s video board saluting Joe Maddon for his years in Tampa:
Thanks for the memories, Joe! pic.twitter.com/KDfRXB8kau— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) September 19, 2017
That one got loud cheers from everyone, Cubs and Rays fans, and acknowledgment from Joe in the Cubs dugout, and from the Cubs Twitter account:
Season highs were set in this win: seven wins in a row and 18 games over .500 are both bests for 2017. The Cardinals and Brewers did not cooperate Tuesday night; both won their games, so the Cubs’ magic number dropped by just one, to nine over the Brewers and seven over the Cardinals. That means the Cubs’ earliest possible division-clinching date would be Sunday in Milwaukee.
Also, the Cubs are now 41-21 since the All-Star break. That’s the best record in the National League in that time frame; only the Indians (47-17) are better. The Cubs have 12 games remaining in the regular season. If they continue to play at their post-All-Star pace, they’ll go 8-4 for a 92-win season.
But why stop there? The Cubs, now the hottest team in baseball, will go for eight straight wins in the final game of this brief two-game set at 6:10 p.m. Wednesday evening. Jon Lester goes for the Cubs and Blake Snell for the Rays.