Of all the ways a nearly four-hour, 11-inning baseball game could have ended, that had to be the most ridiculous.
Let’s start at the end, then. The Cubs have runners on first and third without the benefit of... anything, really, not even a pitch thrown, since they consisted of Sergio Alcántara, the Manfred man, and Frank Schwindel, who had been intentionally walked. Rafael Ortega had sacrificed Alcántara to third, so there’s one out when Ian Happ came to bat.
That’s about the most routine of routine popups, and yet Wilmer Difo — who’s got a World Series ring from the 2019 Nationals! — just dropped it, or more accurately, let it drop, because looking at the video carefully, it doesn’t appear he ever touched the ball. Alcántara scored and the Cubs won 6-5. The Cubs now have a three-game winning streak for the first time since June 13, when they completed a three-game sweep of the Cardinals, the last victory of a five-game winning streak.
Now let’s rewind to the beginning of this admittedly entertaining baseball game.
Keegan Thompson was not sharp at all. He struggled with command and allowed four hits and two walks in the first two innings. David Ross finally had mercy and removed Thompson with two out in the second after 54 pitches. Three Pirates runs scored in the first on a three-run homer by Colin Moran.
I agree with this take on Thompson’s evening:
Keegan at 91-92 constantly and with shoddy command.— Matt Clapp (@TheBlogfines) September 3, 2021
Need to give it all more time, and sometimes this is a matter of build-up/getting used to the difference in approach, but remember he was touching as high as 98 out of the pen.
Again, there's no reason to not keep trying on this these final weeks.— Matt Clapp (@TheBlogfines) September 3, 2021
Maybe one of them really shows something and improves, maybe one or both don't. But you want to learn all you can on this front when they can always just go back to the pen; have the piggyback option too.
From Ross after the game:
David Ross on Thompson's 1.2 inning start after he struggled from the get-go:— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) September 3, 2021
"Sometimes, I don't know that there's something that has to be off. It's something that he's got to figure out. He's got to be better. I mean, that's the bottom line." #Cubs
Meanwhile, Pirates righthander Mitch Keller, who entered this game with a 6.75 ERA, absolutely flummoxed Cubs batters for six innings. They had six hits over that time but just one runner past first base. That was Rafael Ortega, who led off the first inning with a single and advanced to second on an error and third on a single by Happ.
The game remained close, though, because of absolutely outstanding work from the Cubs bullpen. Adrian Sampson, Scott Effross and Adam Morgan retired 17 straight Pirates from the second until Morgan issued a one-out walk in the eighth, and that runner was immediately erased on a double play.
Sampson, in particular, has been quite impressive in brief duty this year, posting a 1.59 ERA over five appearances covering 11⅓ innings, with two walks and 11 strikeouts. It’s too small of a sample size to determine if it’s for real, but Sampson has clearly earned a longer look.
Also, I think Effross could be a real weapon out of the pen if he can harness command as he did Thursday evening. There aren’t many MLB pitchers these days with that sidearm, nearly submarine motion, and that different look could really help him.
Anyway, the Pirates finally removed Keller for a pinch-hitter in the seventh and the Cubs got to work on his replacement, Chad Kuhl, in the bottom of the inning. Robinson Chirinos singled on a ball that went about 60 feet and Alcántara doubled him to third. After pinch-hitter Michael Hermosillo struck out, Ortega tied the game [VIDEO].
The ball bounced in and out of the basket, but that was long enough for a three-run homer.
Schwindel followed with a single and then Happ gave the Cubs the lead [VIDEO].
That one didn’t go very far either — just the first row of the bleachers — but long enough. For some reason, Pirates manager Derek Shelton left Kuhl in for one more batter, and Patrick Wisdom doubled off him before Shelton had mercy and replaced Kuhl. The Cubs had six hits off Keller in six innings, then got six more off Kuhl in the span of 24 pitches, because baseball.
The Cubs could not score further in the inning, nor in the eighth, and then it was up to Rowan Wick to try to hold the two-run lead.
He didn’t, but I’m here to tell you it wasn’t entirely his fault. Jacob Stallings led off the Pirates ninth with a single just through the infield, then Difo hit a popup maybe 100 feet that found a space in between several Cubs fielders. One out later, the Pirates loaded the bases on catcher’s interference. A two-run single by pinch-hitter Michael Perez tied the game. Wick ended the inning with a double-play ball, so though his numbers don’t look good, I didn’t think he pitched all that badly.
The Cubs went out 1-2-3 in the ninth and on the game went to extras.
The Pirates got the Manfred man, Cole Tucker, to third on a groundout and then Bryan Reynolds hit a ball right to Schwindel. The infield was pulled in and Schwindel made a perfect throw home to Chirinos for the second out. After a walk, another ground ball ended the 10th. The Cubs, too, got their runner to third with one out in the 10th but could not score.
In the 11th, the Pirates went down 1-2-3. The Cubs’ runner, Alcántara, was sacrificed to third by Ortega. Schwindel was intentionally passed and Happ came to the plate and that’s where we came in. (Also, go back and look at the walkoff video again and note Schwindel racing back to first base on the pop fly, then taking off for second after it drops.)
Quick note: Intentional walks are starting to trend way down across MLB over the last few seasons. Entering Thursday’s game the Cubs had just 11 all year, and this was only the third time they’d received more than one in a game. In the last year pitchers had to throw four balls outside the zone for an IBB (2016), 932 of them were issued. Since then:
2020: 202 (extrapolates to 546 in a 162-game season)
2021: 568 (on pace for 693)
It took a couple of years after the automatic IBB rule was instituted in 2017, but teams are making much less use of the IBB as a strategy now than ever before. If MLB does institute the universal DH in 2022 (as happened in 2020), I would expect this number to drop even further, as the IBB to face a pitcher batting would be eliminated. Of the 15 teams with the fewest IBB received in 2021, 13 of them are AL teams (the Cubs and Mets are the other two).
Give this makeshift Cubs team credit. They are beginning to feel like a “team” again after all the deadline deals and are finding ways to win. They’ve won six of their last nine, granted, five of those are against other not-good teams. But wins are wins.
The Cubs will go for their fourth straight win Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Alec Mills will start for the Cubs and Steven Brault is the scheduled starter for the Pirates. Game time is 1:20 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network, and the game will also be on MLB Network (outside the Cubs and Pirates market territories).