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Cubs 5, Braves 4: Pitching, defense and Tommy La Stella

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The Cubs’ pinch-hitter extraordinaire tied a record and won the game.

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s been remarked here, on a number of occasions, how Tommy La Stella’s power has almost completely disappeared this year. Despite his good year pinch-hitting, his slugging percentage dropped from a good .472 in 2017 to just .304 entering Thursday night’s game. Of his 39 hits going into that game, just six were for extra bases, all doubles.

And then, just when the Cubs had finished blowing a 3-0 lead and trailed 4-3 going into the sixth, TLS came up to pinch hit for Brandon Kintzler with Kyle Schwarber on base.

Boom! [VIDEO]

La Stella’s first home run of the season and first pinch-hit home run ever gave the Cubs the lead. Great defense and solid relief pitching helped them hang on for a 5-4 win over the Braves in their quick trip to Atlanta to make up a May 17 rainout.

That home run accomplished something else for Tommy:

The major-league record for pinch hits in a season is 28, set by John Vander Wal of the Rockies in 1995. There probably isn’t enough time left in the season for TLS to approach that, but his next pinch hit will establish a Cubs team record.

Let’s unpack the rest of this satisfying win.

Mike Montgomery was solid for the first four innings while the Cubs were building a 3-0 lead. After Ben Zobrist doubled leading off the second and Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch, a balk, a groundout and a throwing error allowed both men to score for a 2-0 lead. In the third, Anthony Rizzo walked and Zobrist singled him to third. Rizzo then scored on a double by Willson Contreras.

Montgomery ran out of gas in the fifth. Two singles leading off the inning put Braves runners on first and third and brought up Freddie Freeman [VIDEO].

Heyward’s somewhat awkward dive to attempt a catch on Freeman’s hit led to J-Hey leaving the game. He was replaced by Albert Almora Jr. This would turn out to be important later, interestingly enough. Heyward’s injury doesn’t appear serious:

Hopefully, this will just mean he’s day-to-day. The Cubs might have to play a man short Friday night, but Saturday should bring reinforcements with September roster expansion. I’d expect Terrance Gore to be added Saturday (among others) and he can play defense if needed, in addition to being a pinch runner.

Anyway, the Braves had scored a run in the third off MiMo, and Freeman’s ball wound up as a two-run triple, tying the game. Freeman later scored on a sacrifice fly to give the Braves the lead.

The Cubs got that lead right back in the sixth on TLS’ aforementioned home run, and that’s when the Cubs bullpen and defense really stepped up.

Jesse Chavez entered to throw the bottom of the sixth and recorded the first two outs quickly. Then Lucas Duda, making his first appearance in a Braves uniform, hit a ball a long, long way to right-center [VIDEO].

We have all seen Almora make catches like that before. And while Jason Heyward is a fine defensive outfielder, I don’t think J-Hey makes that catch. (Also, check out Chavez’ reaction in that video.)

Chavez recorded the first out in the seventh and then was replaced by Justin Wilson to face the lefthanded-hitting Freeman and Nick Markakis. He got Freeman on a fly to left and struck out Markakis, throwing him all fastballs. It’s been so easy to criticize Wilson over the year or so he’s been a Cub, so credit where credit’s due: That was solid relief pitching against two very good hitters.

Carl Edwards Jr. had one of his most efficient innings of the year: Three outs on eight pitches, all strikes.

And then Pedro Strop entered the game to try to nail down the one-run victory. Dansby Swanson hit an infield popup to Javier Baez. Ender Inciarte stepped up to pinch hit, and lofted a little fly ball into short center that looked like it might drop, but Javy did himself some Javy [VIDEO].

There really aren’t enough superlatives to tell you just how good Javier Baez is defensively. His baseball instincts are off the charts. Once he started running toward that ball I don’t think he ever had one smidgen of doubt that he would catch it.

And then Ronald Acuna Jr. stepped up, already 3-for-4 in this game with a couple of runs scored. Strop got a quick 0-2 count on Acuna, and eventually ran the count full, with Acuna fouling off some really good pitches. And then, Pedro got him to hit a popup in Javy’s direction and the Cubs had a hard-fought win over a very good Braves team. And Acuna? Man, that guy is already a great player at age 20. Give him a year or two and he’ll be one of the best players in the game.

This was an excellent way to begin this long road trip, a total team effort. The Cubs wound up splitting the season series three games each with a team they might wind up facing in the postseason, and they took two of three in Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Cardinals also won Thursday, so the Cubs’ lead in the N.L. Central remains 4½ games over St. Louis and five over Milwaukee with one more day crossed off the calendar. The Cubs are 18-9 in August with one game remaining in the month, and have now won eight of their last nine.

The Cubs head to Philadelphia to begin a three-game series against another possible October opponent, the Phillies. Friday night’s series opener features Jose Quintana starting for the Cubs and Nick Pivetta going for the Phillies. Game time is 6:05 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be on NBC Sports Chicago Plus.