Remember when the Cubs started out 13-3? Seems like an eternity ago. I must admit, even as someone who tries to follow the Cubs with a little bit of a critical eye, I still keep expecting them to steady the ship whenever there is a little positive. Yu had the big win Friday night and then the Cubs scored first on Saturday. Woohoo, maybe they are going to push back on the Cardinals. Then the rest of Saturday happened. Ugh. But there I was again last night, Cubs were leading 3-1 with Jon Lester on the mound. And there is my brain again, this is going to be vintage Jon. Then there was the rest of the game.
I will say two things surrounding Lester. First, Father Time remains the leading cause in the demise of big league careers. Second, even recognizing the paragraph before this, the wishful thinking, the sometimes gullible, I’m still not entirely betting against Jon getting some things figured out and finding a way to contribute. Without some contribution from Jon, the Cubs are in some serious trouble in their starting rotation. Compounding that problem, they just don’t have the length in the bullpen that some teams do and don’t have the same ability as, say, the Cardinals and Brewers to just pull the plug on a starter and go with five, six, seven innings out of the pen.
At least with Jon, I can point to Father Time. If Jon never turns things around. If he’s in the middle of a steep decline into irrelevancy, he still had a long and successful career. That man has achieved more than most over will and can always hold his head up high. I’m not saying that Javier Baez and Kris Bryant don’t also have plenty to be proud of in their far younger careers. But I am saying that their remarkable declines are stunning and disappointing. To be sure, injuries have played their part in slowing these two down. And of course, even if they don’t salvage anything of this season, one bad season is not the death knell of a career. But those two have by and large sabotaged the Cubs offense. Having two hitters who have been among the worst in baseball and have batted in the top four spots in the order in every game is just devastating to the offense. Al wrote a nice piece that’s still available on the front page about the lineup.
Early on there were some really trumpeting the achievements of David Ross. Those of us who have been around longer and seen more of this suggested that perhaps we should wait until the first bump in the road before anointing David as any kind of savior and the curer of what has ailed the Cubs for the last couple of years. I supported his hiring and am certainly not abandoning ship at this point. But if you didn’t think there would be growing pains for someone who never even coached the game at every level, that’s pretty much on you. David suffers from the same affliction that even seasoned managers do. He keeps rolling the same ineffective hitters out at the top of the lineup like it is some kind of birthright that they are entitled to those spots in perpetuity. He also seems particularly stubborn at times with the bullpen.
He’ll learn and grow. I’m sure with the way 2020 has played out and is structured that this season has come at him pretty fast. I’m betting he’ll be a much better manager in 2021 than he has been this year. I imagine he’ll take time to reflect and recognize some mistakes he’s made and grow from them. If there is evidence that he’s learning from these mistakes in season and making changes, I’m not particularly seeing it. I was impressed in the early going that he didn’t trot Jon Lester out as an opening day starter just because it was his guy. But Jon wasn’t stretched out the same way that Kyle Hendricks was and so some of that decision was easy. I was excited to see the way he handled Craig Kimbrel. But I imagine, at least in the front office some of that was anticipated given the train wreck that was Kimbrel with the Cubs in 2019.
I’m frustrated to watch Bryant and Baez at the top of the order day in and day out. I’m frustrated with the bullpen usage. Several times in the last week it seemed like a given pitcher wasn’t available so some sub optimal choice was made in a situation, only to see that pitcher who I thought maybe wasn’t available pitch later. I’m mystified at times with how the bullpen is being used. To be fair, it seems like every button pushed is wrong in some of these games. That’s a tough way to manage when the farther you get away from Jeremy Jeffress, the less dependable the reliever is.
The fun thing about baseball, particularly in this short season, is that that 13-3 start did happen. The Cubs sit right now 1½ games in front of the Cardinals and well clear of the rest of the division. The Cubs will send Hendricks to the mound against the Cards. They did have one shining inning against him in the seventh inning of a doubleheader game this year. They’ve also been largely baffled by him over the last few years. If Kyle can do his thing, the offense puts together a few runs for him to work with and the bullpen doesn’t blow it (yeah, that’s a huge if) the Cubs can end this series with a 2½-game lead and the Cardinals are heading into the most gauntlet-y part of their schedule. The Cubs do have the lead and they do have guys with a pedigree that at least give them a fighting chance in the playoffs. So as bad as it’s been, maybe today is the day it turns?
And 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) 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. With that, let’s get to the results.
Game 41, September 6: Cardinals 7, Cubs 3 (23-18)
- Superhero: Jason Kipnis (.118). Just one hit in three at bats, but his two-run homer was the majority of the Cubs offense.
- Hero: Dan Winkler (.096). He faced six batters and retired five of them. Certainly one of the guys I don’t have faith in, but he does have a 3.00 ERA over 12 innings in 12 games. But yeah, I’m not crazy, he’s carrying a FIP of 6.23 suggesting doom might be just around the corner.
- Sidekick: Willson Contreras (.045). Willson had a hit and a walk in four plate appearances. He scored a run. Willson just had a week where he had 10 hits in 25 plate appearances and drew two walks. He had a homer, a double and drove in five runs while scoring seven. Maybe one of the Cubs stars is starting to get locked in.
- Billy Goat: Jon Lester (-.395). Jon recorded 10 outs while allowing six hits, two walks and five runs. He did strike out four.
- Goat: Josh Osich (-.117). Osich faced four batters, allowing two singles and a double before eventually striking one hitter out. He was charged with two runs.
- Kid: Kyle Schwarber (-.086). Kyle was hitless in four at bats and struck out twice.
WPA Play of the Game: Paul Goldschmidt stepped to the plate with one out and runners on first and second in the third inning. The Cubs were leading 3-1. Goldschmidt hit a three-run homer and that was about it for the Cubs. (.255)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Jason Kipnis batted with a runner on second and two outs in the second inning, the game tied at one. He hit a two-run homer that gave the Cubs a short-lived lead. (.184)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Heroes and Goats Cumulative Standings: (Top 3/Bottom 3)
- Ian Happ 18
- Yu Darvish 17
- Jason Kipnis 13
- Anthony Rizzo -7.5
- Kris Bryant -10
- Javier Baez -11
Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini sit at -6.5. I will always say that the results of H&G aren’t entirely scientific or predictive, but having four guys who are generally in the top six in your lineup at the bottom of this list isn’t a recipe for success. Not even if you had a pitcher throwing a quality start and a reliever closing out the win every night.
Up Next: Kyle Hendricks has made a ton of very large starts in his career, starting some of the most significant games in Cubs history. Obviously, a September start in a shortened season isn’t on par with those. But, this start is huge. The Cubs really need a win here. You can’t over simplify or over-interpret one game. But, I do feel like I have a justified belief that if the Cubs win this game, they win the division and if they lose it, they don’t. It certainly doesn’t have to happen that way, but I’m inclined to believe that.
Johan Oviedo gets the start for the Cardinals. This is an absolute mismatch on paper. Of course, Oviedo will surely be allowed to go more or less twice through the Cubs order and then give way to a pen that has largely stifled the Cubs in 2020. So the expectations on these two pitchers is pretty different. The odds-makers have seen the same things most of us have on the Hendricks numbers against the Cardinals. They are seeing this one as heavily favoring the Cubs. I’m only seeing two teams more heavily favored than the Cubs on this day. This is a game the Cubs simply must win.