As the at bats ticked away Saturday night I was frustrated and thinking about the last episode of Cuppa Cubbie Blue, where Andi Cruz Vanecek and I asked where the real Cubs offense was. They hadn’t scored in 17 innings against the Brewers and with Josh Hader entering the game in the ninth it seemed like another September swoon was on the way. I couldn’t help but groan internally, after all, the Cardinals absolutely demolished the Cubs sweeping them at Wrigley over four games last September, and in 2018 this same Brewers team got improbably hot, forcing the Cubs into game 163, then an extra-inning loss to the Rockies in the Wild Card Game. I just found myself mumbling on my couch “not again.”
Kyle Schwarber struck out trying to bunt against the shift, which seemed like it was going to be a metaphor for yet another infuriating September loss. At the moment Schwarber struck out the Brewers had a 96 percent chance of winning the game according to Baseball Reference’s WPA — and then the Cubs’ luck suddenly shifted.
Javier Báez has been struggling in 2020, but he managed to hit a single to right field over the infielders. Anthony Rizzo, who was supposed to be taking advantage of a day off, batted for Victor Caratini and laced another single to the same spot. Hader had given up two hits all season prior to that point and he’s notoriously tough on lefties, but Jason Heyward has been one of the Cubs best hitters so I felt like there was a chance.
I didn’t even dream Heyward would do this [VIDEO].
I love that you can hear the roar of the Cubs dugout as the ball leaves the bat. I love that Len Kasper’s voice cracks a tiny bit as he calls this monster home run. I love what Ildemaro Vargas did next even more [VIDEO].
I was stunned and ecstatic screaming with tears of joy on my couch. It felt like the momentum shifted, like this could be the moment we might all look back on later and say, this was when the real 2020 Chicago Cubs stood up.
I imagine in Milwaukee on Sunday the Cubs were just trying to follow up that improbable comeback win with a solid performance when Alec Mills turned in the pitching performance of his life and threw the second no hitter in the history of Wrigley North.
Alec Mills was a 22nd-round pick who walked on at the University of Tennessee-Martin. He has thrown 649⅔ minor league innings since 2012. On Sunday 20 percent of the pitches he threw were curveballs that averaged 68.3 miles per hour. To say that Mills was not at the top of the “who will throw the next Cubs no-hitter” list is an understatement.
In fact, perhaps the greatest part of the no-hitter is how much of a team effort it truly was. The Brewers had 11 hard-hit balls, but all of them were dispatched by excellent defense, including this outstanding play by Ian Happ in center in the bottom of the second, when no one had any idea what the later innings would bring [VIDEO].
Or the exceptional play by Báez later in the bottom of the sixth to rob Avisaíl García of a single, when everyone knew exactly what was at stake.
Victor Caratini had an outstanding day framing behind the plate, allowing Mills to nibble at the edges and preventing the Brewers from squaring up pitches:
Only 5 swinging strikes for Alec Mills in his no-hitter today.— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) September 13, 2020
But 26 called strikes -- and very little thrown in the middle of the zone -- got the job done. pic.twitter.com/ZSjl3JsVlJ
And then there was veteran Heyward, in the mix again, declining to be pulled out of a lopsided Cubs victory while Mills had a shot at a no hitter, as Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune reported:
Alec Mills was grateful to learn that Jason Heyward wanted to stay in the game to be a part of his no-hitter, passing up the chance to get some early rest.
Mills’ feelings mirror those of many teammates who have appreciated Heyward’s openness with them as well as his production.
Heyward’s three-run home run in the ninth inning Saturday ranks as the biggest hit of the Cubs season, and he continued to produce Sunday with an RBI double during the five-run fourth.
Along with Ian Happ — who capped the five-run rally with a two-run single — locking down the leadoff spot, Heyward’s consistent play and leadership have helped steady a team that has been on a roller-coaster ride.
On the podcast I frequently say “baseball gonna baseball.” There is such an element of randomness and luck in this sport. Yes you need the building blocks of a solid team to compete, but the differences between the top few teams always seems built more on serendipity than analytics. It has been a few seasons since the Cubs had that feeling of a team that would get every lucky bounce and advantage while racking up wins. With a dozen games left in the regular season it feels like something akin to luck has shifted on the North Side of Chicago.