As this series winds down, we look at the very biggest games and moments of the season. Today, we take a look at the third highest WPA game of the season. This one comes from June 3. On June 3, the Cubs found themselves going into the game at 26-27 and just one game out of first. The start to the year had been a bit of a letdown coming off a World Series win. And part of that letdown came from some of the biggest stars getting off to inconsistent or even bad starts to the season.
The Cubs were looking to get some momentum going. They’d actually won the day before for their fourth consecutive home victory. Unfortunately, between the third and the fourth in a row, they lost six consecutive road games on a trip to the west coast. Prior to the road trip, they were at a season high four games over .500. But due to the poor trip, they returned home at a season low matching two games under .500.
Jon Lester was on the mound for the Cubs against Mike Leake for the Cardinals. Normally this is a matchup we’d be very secure in, but Leake got off to a great start to his 2017 season. The optimism waned even further when old pal Dexter Fowler lead off the game with a walk and Tommy Pham reached on a bunt single. Lester then walked Steven Piscotty and then Jose Martinez lined a two run single to right (-.092). Just like that four straight batters had reached and the Cardinals had a 2-0 lead. Lester got Yadier Molina to ground into a double play and the retired Jhonny Peralta to get out of the inning down only 2-0 which seemed like a mini-victory after the first four batters reached.
The Cubs were retired in order in both the first and second innings. The Cardinals threatened in the second, getting two more runners on but Lester wriggled out of trouble. He also retired the Cardinals in order in the third. In the bottom of the third, the Cubs not only got their first baserunner, but their first run when Javier Baez hit a home run (.108). They added a single and a hit by pitch in the inning, but couldn’t even things up.
Each team was retired in order in the fourth. In the fifth, one of the most memorable moments of the Cubs season occurred when Tommy Pham drew a two out walk. He inched out to wider and wider leads until finally Lester threw to first and actually picked off Pham. In the bottom of the inning, Javy had another hit, but the Cubs failed to get him past second base.
Then in the top of the sixth Yadier Molina took one deep (-.132) to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead. The Cubs were retired in order in the sixth. Hector Rondon pitched a perfect top of the seventh. That sent it to what would turn out to be the pivotal inning for the Cubs.
It started off innocently enough, Ben Zobrist flied out to right and with that out, the Cubs were down to approximately 18.4% chance of winning. But then things started to turn. Jason Heyward singled to right (.046). Willson Conteras followed with a single (.104) but then Javy struck out swinging (-.109). Jon Jay was hit by a pitch to load the bases with two outs (.050).
That brought Kyle Schwarber to the plate. Kyle came into the game with a line of .163/.284/.337. That would prove to be the lowest OPS of the season for him. He was hitless in three at bats, but a tiring Mike Leake was still on the mound when he came to the plate. Kyle crushed on for a grand slam, just his ninth home run of the year (.592).
Suddenly, the Cubs had a 5-3 lead and an 86.6% chance of winning. Things can change so fast. Koji Uehara pitched a perfect eighth and Wade Davis worked around a walk in the ninth to record his 12th save.
For Kyle Schwarber, this was the low point of his season statistically. Surely, being sent down to the minors a few weeks later was the low point personally and psychologically, but from this bottoming out point, Kyle followed with half a season’s worth of games. He played in 81 games from June 3 to the end of the season. He started 65 of them. He got 278 plate appearances. In those appearances he hit .246/.338/.561. Certainly we’d all hope for a bit better batting average than that, but even if that is the player Kyle ends up being, a .900 slug is plenty worthwhile to have in the lineup. Over a full season, a .900 OPS would have ranked 16th in the National League, just in front of Anthony Rizzo. A .561 slugging percentage would have ranked ninth just being Paul Goldschmidt.
We can only hope that the Kyle Schwarber we saw in the second half of the season is the one we see throughout 2018. His defense will always make a group of people roll their eyes. But, his bat offsets it when he is on his game. Kyle figures to start 120+ games in left field for the Cubs in 2018. And if his bat is like the one that showed up in the second half of the season, expect that number to look more like 150+.
Next week, we’ll be looking at the second largest negative game of the year for the Cubs. Later this week I’ll be back with another look at the 1984 Cubs as the season moves towards its conclusion. I hope you’ve (dear lord, I almost typed Yu’ve) enjoyed reading. Real baseball is just around the corner!