Monday night’s game was a tale of two games. There were the first five-plus innings. Those featured the Cubs offense stringing together a pair of three-run rallies in the first two innings, chasing the Reds starter. Anthony Rizzo added the “extra point” with a solo homer in the top of the sixth.
On the mound, Jon Lester was throwing five shutout innings with the only real blemish on his night were the first two errors by the Cubs defense on the season. Neither error did any damage and it’s not immediately obvious that Lester would have gotten a sixth inning but for those errors.
Jon Lester is a fiery guy and maybe at some point later in the season things will change and he’ll be frustrated at being pulled. But his first time out, old pal David Ross pulled him while throwing a no-hitter. The other side of two people who are friends suddenly thrust into a position where one supervises the work of the other is that there can be a healthy level of respect. Certainly, there doesn’t appear to be any sign that Ross isn’t going to be willing to make tough decisions involving his old pals.
The other side of the game was the Cubs bullpen allowing seven runs in the final four innings of the game. Eight walks and two hit batters certainly didn’t help those numbers. When handed a 7-0 lead, you generally ask your pitchers to hammer the zone. What came out of the Cubs bullpen was anything but hammering the zone. In fairness, Great American Ballpark can be an extreme offensive park at times. Neither team was particularly just packing it in and assuming the game was over. Some have noted that in this abbreviated season, where the final standings will likely be very tight, particularly with expanded playoffs, we may see more games than usual like this. So many teams are likely to be in contention and the bar for reaching the playoffs low enough, that teams may be more likely than ever to fight to their last breath.
One of the hallmarks of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era is spending the huge money on starting pitching and hitters and amassing a large quantity of relief arms. Quantity over quality basically. This has worked out over the course of full seasons. The net result is generally that the Cubs aren’t particularly attached at the hip to any given pitcher or pitchers and so they grind through them until they settle on a group. Year in, year out their bullpen has been statistically one of the better bullpens each year. Of course, they haven’t had a really lockdown bullpen in any of those years. That ends up being a stark contrast to say the Brewers who regularly steal games with heavy usage of their bullpen.
One very valid question as this season wears on is how this will play out in a short season. In my estimation, there are at least three problems with this approach for this season. First, with the minor leagues not operating, there likely won’t be an ample pool of replacement pitchers who are seeing any kind of live game action. Second, by all rights the Cubs probably should have lost last night’s game due to a bullpen collapse. When the gap between the last team in and the last team out or a higher seeding is extremely likely to be one game, every game is amplified. You don’t want to be losing a game that you should have won. Third, there just isn’t a lot of runway. Typically, the Cubs bullpen has struggled over the first month or so in recent years and then slowly crept up the rankings of bullpens. There isn’t time to balance things back out. This is a season where you have to get where you are going.
Of course, no one ever anticipated this 2020 season. No one planned for this. I’m not really even sure how one could plan for it within the context of the normal operation of a team. This is a truly unprecedented season. The Cubs will have to make do with what they’ve got and hope it works out. In that, Ross will have his hands full. I’m sure he’ll get a lot of input and suggestion from those on his staff and the front office. Fortunately, the Cubs are off to a 3-1 start. By the end of baseball Wednesday, 10 percent of the season will be done. If the Cubs are sitting on four or five wins already at that point, they’ll be in a really nice position in the short season. Of course, as we all know, you can’t win a championship in the first month. But we also know that you can certainly lose one.
Game 4, July 27: Cubs 8, Reds 7 (3-1)
- Superhero: Jeremy Jeffress (.548). No pressure really. He inherited the bases loaded and a one run lead with one out in the ninth. As the WPA would indicate, the Reds were actually favored to win by the time he entered the game. Oh and he had to get by Joey Votto to finish it. Voila. Mission accomplished and already a new peak WPA score for the year.
- Hero: Jon Lester (.135). Jon was almost an after thought by the end of this game. Which is only an indictment of the bullpen. Jon was fantastic through five innings.
- Sidekick: Steven Souza Jr. (.121). A two-run double in the middle of the Cubs three run first inning marked a return for Steven that he wasn’t always sure would happen.
- Billy Goat: Craig Kimbrel (-.500). Four walks and a hit batter out of six batters faced. He’s going to have to learn to at least show a curve ball in the zone. Right now, hitters are recognizing the spin and laying off that pitch entirely.
- Goat: Kyle Schwarber (-.071). Kyle got the start against a lefty but he couldn’t cash in. He was hitless in five at bats and struck out twice.
- Kid: James Norwood (-.024). Most of the non-Kimbrel relievers pitched in low leverage situations, saving them from lining this section. Norwood faced three batters, walked one and allowed a single. He also threw a wild pitch. The run was charged to Ryan Tepera, but that’s small consolation.
WPA Play of the Game: This one came down to the very last hitter. Joey Votto lined to center to end the game with the bases loaded. (.282)
*Reds Play of the Game: Tyler Stephenson drew a one-out bases loaded walk to cut the Cubs lead to just one. (.204) That young man will never forget his MLB debut.
Up Next: Game two of the four game set tonight. Alec Mills makes his first cubs start of the season. The Reds will start Tyler Mahle. It looks like the odds fall somewhere between a toss up or slightly favoring the Reds in this one. That feels right. Realistically, I wouldn’t be surprised at this game falling anywhere on the spectrum. Either team could win a close one, either team could win in a rout. If the Cubs can eke out a win, they’d be in an excellent position with Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish slated to pitch the final two games of the series.
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
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Steven Souza Jr.