Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the power of perception. It sure feels like the Cubs have struggled a lot over the last two weeks doesn’t it? Sure, if the Cubs had been shutout again on Monday (they didn’t score until the seventh inning after having been shutout in back-to-back games), we’d be rightfully concerned about the offense. But, on August 16, the Cubs lost the first game of a three game series with the Pirates. That loss followed a three game sweep at the hands of the Phillies. After that game on August 16, the Cubs were 64-58.
The Cubs won those next two games in Pittsburgh. Then they came home and swept the Giants. The Cubs got whitewashed by the Nationals at home in a three-game set. But then they went to New York and swept the Mets. They lost two of three at home to the Brewers, and now they’ve won the first game of a two game set from the Mariners. The net result? The Cubs have now won 10 of their last 15 games. That is without question a successful stretch of baseball, but it sure doesn’t feel like that, does it?
So what’s going on here? Let’s look internal first. The Cubs lost three games to the wild card leading Nationals. It’s very possible that the Cubs will be in the wild card game and so, certainly you’d have wanted to show up in those three games. But, it’s worth noting that the Nationals have a 53-26 record since the start of June. Certainly, as fans of a team that hopes it can make another World Series run, you like to think they should be able to compete with anyone at anytime. Certainly that didn’t happen against the Nationals.
The Cubs also lost two out of three to the Brewers. That one ends up being doubly frustrating because A) the Brewers had been back-sliding horribly, B) the Brewers are one of the teams chasing the Cubs for the second wild card spot and C) because we generally dislike the Brewers.
The real problem? The Cardinals are 22-5 in their last 27 games. A team that had been 58-55 through its first 113 games has had an otherworldly 27 games. So it feels like the Cubs are significantly moving in the wrong direction. On August 16, the Cardinals took a one-game lead in the division. Since that day, they are 13-4 and as a result, they now have a three-game lead in the division. So it feels like things are worse for the Cubs than they’ve actually been.
The only thing that is actually true about the Cubs’ struggles over the last two plus weeks is that the wins and losses don’t land in the games where you’d prefer they landed. They’ve lost five games out of their last 15, and they were five games you would not pick to lose. So the sequencing has been bad. No question. Put differently, the Cubs have really struggled in this stretch against the good teams, but they’ve fully taken care of business against the bad teams. But, that discounts the Mets too much. They’d cooled slightly, but don’t forget that they’d both been white hot in the start of August (definitely before the Cubs played them) and had their three best starters lined up for the series.
This stretch was far from devastating. The Cubs are not in the process of choking away a division title. Most years, starting the final stretch of the year 10-5 is going to be slowly pulling away. If the Cardinals were a pedestrian 8-7, the Cubs would have pulled into first place ahead of them by a game over that stretch. It would be the Cardinals looking to seven games at the end of the year and needing to do damage. Sure, the Cubs underachieved early in the season. Those struggles gave the Cardinals life and so here we are in a dogfight when this Cardinals run should have been trying to erase a giant division deficit, given their own mediocre play for most of the season.
It’s all a matter of perception. Certainly, it feels this morning like the Cardinals are an unstoppable juggernaut. Should the Cardinals somehow just keep on plowing through, they’re going to win the division. But it ain’t over yet. They have 13 road games left, including stops in Colorado, Chicago and Arizona and they still have to host the Nationals. I’ll be more than a little shocked if they can keep it rolling through the month of September. Still, a three-game lead at this point in the year is nothing to sneeze at. I’m just saying I don’t believe the final chapter of this division race has been written yet.
With that, we turn our attention to yesterday’s game as we look at what WPA had to say about Heroes and Goats. As always the Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA (Win Probability Added — here’s a good explanation of how WPA works) and are not in any way subjective. Many days WPA will not tell the story of what happened, but often it can give at least a glimpse to who rose to the occasion in a high leverage moment or who didn’t get the job done in that moment. Also note, for the purposes of Heroes and Goats, we ignore the results of pitchers while they are batting and hitters while they are pitching. With that, we get to the results.
Game 137, September 2: Cubs 5, Mariners 1 (74-63)
- Superhero: Anthony Rizzo (.355). Two singles and two hit by pitches in four plate appearances. One of those singles drove in the tying run in the seventh inning and broke a long scoreless drought.
- Hero: Kyle Schwarber (.177). A two hit game included a three-run triple in the seventh that propelled the Cubs to victory.
- Sidekick: Kyle Hendricks (.169). Still didn’t pick up win number 10 as he left the game before the scoring occurred. Kyle has seen some of the worst run support of any pitcher in baseball this year and it is muting what otherwise was another very good season. He threw six innings and allowed one run on three hits and a walk. He struck out seven.
- Billy Goat: Robel Garcia (-.083). Robel had one walk and two strikeouts in three plate appearances.
- Goat: Kris Bryant (-.052). Kris had just one walk to show for four plate appearances. He struck out twice.
- Kid: Victor Caratini (-.034). Entered the game late as a pinch hitter and stayed in the game. Had a tough day at the plate with a strikeout and hit into a double play.
WPA Play of the Game: Anthony Rizzo batted with runners on first and second and one out in the seventh inning, the Cubs trailing 1-0. He lined a single to center that tied the game at one. The runners ended up at second and third following an error. (.300)
*Mariners Play of the Game: Dee Gordon had an RBI-single with one out in the fifth inning. (.140)
Cumulative Standings Top/Bottom 3:
- Anthony Rizzo 37
- Kris Bryant 30.75
- Kyle Hendricks 14
- !Carl Edwards Jr. -12
- Jason Heyward -18
- Pedro Strop -20.5
Up Next: The Cubs will look to sweep a two-game set from the Mariners for the second time this year in a matchup of two pitchers who threw in the earlier two-game set in Seattle. The Cubs will also be looking to once again reach 12 games over .500, the high-water mark of the season. They were there once last week.
Jon Lester gets the call tonight. He is 11-9 with a 4.36 ERA in 144⅓ innings. He’s struggled a bit over his last seven with a 2-3 and a 5.79 ERA over 37⅓ innings. But, he was good in New York the last time out. He threw six innings, allowed five hits, three walks and one run. He struck out four. He was fantastic against the Mariners in a start May 1 in Seattle. In that one, he threw seven shutout innings allowing one hit, one walk and had eight strikeouts. Obviously, being in the opposite league, he doesn’t face the Mariners often, but he hasn’t allowed a run against them since September 2014. The last three starts he’s made against them have been scoreless. Current Mariners have just 49 PA against Jon with a .469 OPS. Kyle Seager has almost half of those PA (19) and has two homers and a double among five hits (.895 OPS). The rest of the Mariners are a combined 3-for-30 against Jon with no extra base hits or walks.
On the other side Felix Hernandez starts for the Mariners. Felix has had a tough year, limited by injuries. He’s only 1-4 with a 6.02 ERA in 49⅓ innings. He’s made two starts since returning from injury and has no decision in either one. He’s allowed five runs in 10⅔ innings over the two starts. In April, the Cubs scored four runs on eight hits and one walk in six innings of work. He struck out eight.
Given the very small sample this year, I pulled Felix’ career splits. Felix has been very tough on both right-handed hitters (.645) and lefties (.695). He’s also been good at home (.650) and away (.693). Felix will certainly go down as one of the greatest starters in Mariners history, though he’s probably more a Hall of Very Good player than a Hall of Fame player. Current Cubs have 125 PA against Hernandez with a .607 OPS. Ben Zobrist saw quite a bit of him during his AL days and doesn’t miss him (48, .425). Nicholas Castellanos (8, 1.625) and Anthony Rizzo (6, 1.500) both have good numbers including a homer in much smaller samples.
Hopefully, Jon can win another big game here and the Cubs bats can keep Felix from finding his form.
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