We had seen this game before, I thought, multiple times in this 2021 Cubs season.
Three other times this year, the Chicago Cubs had scored at least six runs in an inning by the third inning and taken at least a 6-0 lead. In a road game, no less.
June 30 in Milwaukee. August 27 on the South Side. September 16 in Philadelphia.
Not only did the Cubs lose all three of those games, they lost by the combined score of 49-28. Yikes.
So you’ll forgive me if, when I watched the Cubs score six runs in the second inning against the Pirates Thursday night and take a 7-0 lead, I was less thrilled than worried they’d do this again.
Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Instead, the Cubs completed a 9-0 shutout win over the Bucs, winning the series and ending the season 14-5 against Pittsburgh, by far their best 2021 record against any team, and they went 6-3 in PNC Park. It was also the team’s biggest shutout win since a 10-0 win over the White Sox September 25, 2020 and their biggest margin of victory since a 12-3 win over the Cardinals May 21.
Let’s start at the beginning, because Rafael Ortega did. He smashed the first pitch of the game into the seats at PNC Park [VIDEO].
The homer was Ortega’s 11th of the year, in just 287 at-bats. He had hit at least that many just once in a 13-year minor-league career: 21 with Triple-A Gwinnett in the Braves organization in 2019.
Then the Cubs really got to work with the bats in the second inning. Nick Martini led off with a walk. One out later, Sergio Alcántara made it 3-0 Cubs [VIDEO].
Cubs starting pitcher Justin Steele then singled, his second hit in his last three starts. Ortega singled with Steele taking third. Frank Schwindel then grounded out with Steele scoring, making it 4-0 [VIDEO].
On the play, Ortega took second, then stole third. Ian Happ walked, putting runners on first and third, and then this happened [VIDEO].
That was perfectly executed. Happ drew a throw toward second base; as soon as the throw was made, Ortega broke for the plate and stole home, with the throw back to the plate not even close. A note on Ortega’s day:
Rafael Ortega of the @Cubs is the first player in the modern era to hit a leadoff home run and also steal third and home in the same game.— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) October 1, 2021
Oddly specific, but cool. The Cubs’ three steals (Happ got credit for stealing second on that play) on the night gave them 83 for the season, with 36 times caught stealing. That’s a 69.7 percent success rate, a little bit below the 75 percent rate you’d like to see for such things.
The Cubs weren’t done scoring in the second, either. Willson Contreras’ double scored Happ, making it 6-0 [VIDEO].
Willson is on a bit of a late-season surge. Last 16 games since September 11: .340/.411/.617 (16-for-47) with four doubles, three home runs and 10 runs scored.
Matt Duffy then brought Contreras home with this single [VIDEO].
The last three runs of the six-run inning were scored on just three pitches: The steal of home, Contreras’ double on a 1-0 pitch, and Duffy’s single on the first pitch he saw.
The 7-0 lead gave Steele a chance to show what he could do, and the young lefthander came through with the best outing of his MLB career. He completed seven shutout innings on just 76 pitches (50 strikes), allowing four hits and a walk, with a career-high seven strikeouts. It’s just one game, of course, but it allows Steele to finish his 2021 season on a high note and perhaps give him (and the team) confidence that maybe, just maybe, he can be a part of the 2022 rotation.
The Cubs added two more runs in the fifth. Contreras led off with a single and one out later, Martini singled him to second. David Bote drove Contreras in [VIDEO].
Martini took second on that hit and scored on a single by Alcántara [VIDEO].
Alcántara had three hits and three RBI on the night, his second three-hit game of the year (and of this month, the other was September 2, also against the Pirates).
David Bote, unfortunately, had to leave the game with yet another injury. Here’s what happened [VIDEO].
That’s from the Pirates broadcast and they speculated he had hurt a finger. The Cubs broadcasters — sorry, no video available — noted that Bote might have aggravated the left shoulder injury he’d suffered in May and from which he had presumably recovered. That turned out to be the case:
David Bote left tonight's game with a left shoulder issue. He'll be checked out again in St. Louis, where Ross will have more info.— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) October 1, 2021
Trent Giambrone replaced Bote in the lineup. BCB’s Tim Huwe will have more later this morning on Bote and who might replace him if he has to go on the IL for the season’s last three days.
Erick Castillo, called up to replace Austin Romine as the Cubs’ backup catcher, batted for Steele in the eighth and grounded out. In so doing he became the 66th man to play for the Cubs this year. That’s one short of the MLB record for most players used, set in 2019 by the Mariners. Castillo also caught the last two innings and became the eighth catcher used by the Cubs this year (also Contreras, Romine, Tony Wolters, P.J. Higgins, Jose Lobatón, Robinson Chirinos and Taylor Gushue). That ties a franchise record set in 1885 (!) and also matched in 1916 and 1960 (H/T: Ed Hartig).
Rex Brothers threw a scoreless eighth and Jason Adam a scoreless ninth to complete the shutout, the Cubs’ first since September 1 at Minnesota and their eighth of the season. The Cubs thus finish September with an 11-15 record, not great, but it was their best calendar month since June (12-16).
The Cubs are in St. Louis this weekend to wrap up the 2021 season with a three-game series that begins Friday evening. At the time of this recap posting, the Cubs did not have a starting pitcher listed. It would have been Zach Davies’ turn, but:
Cubs have “TBD” listed for tomorrow’s start in St. Louis. Zach Davies won’t pitch again in 2021. After discussing it with pitcher, team decided it made sense given his workload.— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 30, 2021
Seriously, I’m okay with that.
Adbert Alzolay, who threw 3⅔ shutout relief innings Sunday, would be on normal rest for Friday’s game and could wind up starting and throwing the first few innings, with the rest being a bullpen game. Dakota Hudson, who also threw 3⅔ innings against the Cubs last weekend (in the second game of last Friday’s doubleheader) in his first outing since Tommy John surgery, is the scheduled starter for the Cardinals. Game time is 7:15 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network.