Normally, the phrase “Ian Happ’s outstanding defense” isn’t a phrase you would have expected used anywhere in a game recap here, much less leading off the game story.
But that’s exactly what won the game for the Cubs Friday afternoon, 3-1 over the Pirates. Happ made three incredible catches, one seemingly better than the next, and ending the game with a diving catch off a sinking fly ball hit by Josh Harrison.
There was a runner on third with two out at the time of that grab. If that ball gets by Happ, a run scores and Harrison probably winds up on third.
That’s how the game ended. Now let’s rewind to the beginning.
Mike Montgomery gave up two singles leading off the game. That’s as many hits as he allowed in each of his last two starts — in the entire start. Not an auspicious beginning to this one, and a run scored on a sacrifice fly.
But the Cubs came back to take the lead in the bottom of the inning. New leadoff man Kris Bryant singled and went to third on a double by Jason Heyward. Ben Zobrist singled in Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit a sacrifice fly to score Heyward, so the Cubs had a 2-1 lead for Montgomery.
The lead was extended to 3-1 in the second. Montgomery walked — the fourth walk drawn by a Cubs pitcher this year. The bases were then loaded up on singles by Bryant and Heyward, and Zobrist hit into a force play scoring MiMo with the third run.
Let me pause here again to give some props to Heyward. Both of his hits were well-struck to the opposite field, something he began doing in spring training. He really does look as if he’s figured things out, and if so, that’s a huge boost to the offense. Heyward also made a pair of nice catches of balls near the wall in right field in the later innings.
After Montgomery got the lead, he settled down, aided by his defense. A double play helped him get out of the second inning, and then Happ made the first of his great catches [VIDEO] with two runners on and two out in the third.
That saved at least one run and got the Cubs out of the inning. Montgomery had an uneventful fourth and fifth, and then with two out and nobody on in the sixth, Happ did it again [VIDEO].
That allowed Montgomery to complete six solid innings. He allowed seven hits and one run, with just one walk. The 95-pitch outing was his longest of the season, and he has been a tremendous boost to the rotation.
The Cubs, meanwhile, couldn’t do much against Chad Kuhl after the second. They did manage a pair of singles leading off the sixth, including a really nicely-placed bunt by Albert Almora Jr., but could not score. Kuhl was lifted with one out and reliever Edgar Santana struck out Happ and Tommy La Stella to end the inning.
Once again the Cubs bullpen did its job. Cory Mazzoni allowed a leadoff double in the seventh, then retired the next two hitters before Randy Rosario was summoned to face hot-hitting Austin Meadows. Rosario struck out Meadows, then retired two of the first three he faced in the eighth before Pedro Strop came in.
It was evident by that call that Strop was going to be asked to complete a four-out save. Brandon Morrow, having thrown 21 pitches each of the last two games, was almost certainly unavailable. Strop allowed a leadoff single in the ninth to Colin Moran, who advanced to second on a wild pitch and third on an infield out before Harrison’s at-bat ended with Happ’s third incredible catch, and that’s where we began this recap.
The other story of the day was Bryant batting leadoff. He seemed to take to it, going 3-for-4, and Joe Maddon says we’ll see this again:
Bryant most likely will be leading off on Saturday for #Cubs, too— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 8, 2018
And despite KB’s good day leading off, he still thinks someone else is better at it:
Who's the best #Cubs leadoff hitter? Bryant: "Anthony has that title for a little longer."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 8, 2018
Meanwhile, Maddon had nothing but praise for Happ’s great day in the field:
#Cubs Maddon on Happ's catches: "He saved the game. Literally, he saved the game with a couple catches."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 8, 2018
He’s right. It’s not often that you can quantify run-saving on specific plays, but Happ’s catches saved at least two runs and possibly more. And Clint Hurdle agrees:
Clint Hurdle on Ian Happ: "He probably should have got the save along with Strop today."— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) June 8, 2018
So, the Pirates and Cubs seem to agree. Dogs and cats, living together. https://t.co/ODw8nscWSc
For Strop, it was his first save of 2018, in fact, his first save since 2015 and just seventh as a Cub. But he’s not here to throw in the ninth; he’s become a valuable setup man and you know, even if the Cubs had traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger just for Strop, that still would have been a huge win of a trade. Getting five years’ worth of Jake Arrieta in that deal makes it one of the best in franchise history.
Speaking of Arrieta, he’ll have a chance to help out his old teammates Saturday in Philadelphia, as he’ll start against the Brewers. That means he’ll start twice against Milwaukee over the next couple of weeks, as the Phillies travel to Milwaukee right after the Cubs are there next week. (And yes, go figure why the schedule-makers had the Phillies go home to play the Brewers after coming to Chicago, then go back to Milwaukee next weekend, meaning they travel from San Francisco to Chicago to Philadelphia to Milwaukee to Philadelphia in a 16-day period.)
It rained really hard in Chicago Friday morning, but it had all cleared out except for a few spotty showers by game time, so the grounds crew pulled the tarp, prepared the field, and the game began on time with no weather interruption.
The win puts the Cubs at yet another new high-water mark for 2018 at 12 games over .500, and the 36-24 mark puts them on a 97-win pace. The win also now has the Cubs in a first-place tie with Milwaukee, pending the Brewers game Friday night at Philadelphia.
Saturday afternoon, the Cubs go for their fourth win in a row. Jon Lester will start for the Cubs and Nick Kingham will go for the Pirates. Game time is 1:20 p.m. CT and TV coverage Saturday is on ABC7 Chicago.