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Cubs 2, Rays 1: Because baseball

The Cubs got solid pitching, good defense and just enough hitting to win again.

Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

This game was supposed to be a mismatch.

MLB’s best pitcher so far this year, Shane McClanahan, was facing Kyle Hendricks, who’s still a work in progress after nearly a year rehabbing a shoulder injury.

And yet... the Cubs held down the Rays offense with good pitching from Hendricks and three relievers, and scored just enough to win over the team with the best record in baseball, 2-1 at Wrigley Field Tuesday evening.

The Cubs got some good defense in the first inning after Hendricks put two runners on base with one out. Nico Hoerner stopped a ground ball from getting through the infield, but his flip to Dansby Swanson for a force play was off the mark. But Swanson fired home to nail Wander Franco [VIDEO].

The play was reviewed and ruled “call stands.”

The Cubs must have had a game plan of “be aggressive” against McClanahan, because Hoerner sent his very first pitch into the bleachers for a 1-0 lead [VIDEO].

Here’s more good Cubs defense in the top of the third. With a runner on second and nobody out, Franco hit a ground ball deflected by Hendricks. Hoerner held the runner at second and threw Franco out [VIDEO].

And, again in the fourth, the Cubs flashed some glove, this one a sliding catch by Seiya Suzuki [VIDEO].

In addition to good hitting (2-for-3 with a walk), Suzuki has begun to show the defensive form that had him winning Gold Gloves in Japan.

The Rays tied the game off Hendricks in the fifth on two singles and a walk. Kyle finished the fifth with a ground out, but you could tell he was beginning to get hit hard, even on the outs. He threw 75 pitches and issued three walks. It wasn’t a great outing, but it was definitely a step forward from his first start last week. You can see flashes of the old Professor in what Kyle is doing now. The changeup is beginning to look like it used to. While he likely will never be 2016-18 vintage Hendricks, he can certainly still be a useful MLB starter. His next start should be the last game of the series in San Diego next Monday, assuming the Cubs remain on their current rotation.

Here’s a breakdown of Hendricks’ outing [VIDEO].

Julian Merryweather threw a scoreless sixth and then the Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the inning. Ian Happ hit a blooper into short right field that dropped untouched between Brandon Lowe and Nate Lowe. (Who are not related, and who pronounce their last names differently.) Happ hustled to second with a double, which turned out to be important. The next two Cubs were routine outs.

Happ scored from second on this single by Mike Tauchman [VIDEO].

Tauchman, like Suzuki, went 2-for-3 with a walk. He’s played solid defense in center field. I’ve been critical of him in the past, but he certainly looks like a useful spare-part outfielder and likely sticks around when Cody Bellinger returns. Since Bellinger went out and Tauchman has played center field full time, the Chicago-area native has hit .333/.457/.370 (9-for-27) with a double and six walks. That’s not quite up to what Bellinger was doing, but it’s a reasonable facsimile.

Mark Leiter Jr. was summoned to throw the seventh, and he got three ground outs, one of which likely goes through if Swanson’s not playing shortstop. He showed off great range in running behind second base to retire Nate Lowe.

Then it was Adbert Alzolay’s turn. He threw just nine pitches in retiring the Rays in order in the eighth. The Cubs loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the inning, but could not score. Trey Mancini hit into a double play. Tauchman walked to re-load the bases, but Patrick Wisdom flied to right to end the inning.

I was glad to see Alzolay come back out for the ninth after that efficient eighth, and he did not disappoint. He struck out the first two hitters (four K’s overall in his two-inning stint) and here’s the final out of the game [VIDEO].

I have been on the “Alzolay for closer” bandwagon for a long time. This outing — two innings, 20 pitches, 16 strikes — did everything possible to solidify my belief that while the Cubs have been searching for someone, anyone to close games, the answer has been in the bullpen all the time. Alzolay should be the guy. Here are David Ross’ postgame comments [VIDEO].

More on Alzolay, with which I concur:

This was just filthy:

Cubs pitchers held a potent Rays offense to eight hits and one run over the first 18 innings of this series. You did not expect this when this series began, but even as the Cubs lost four in a row and looked bad doing it in this homestand, I continue to believe this team is better than that, better than they’ve shown during a rough month of May. It certainly wasn’t expected that a team that was 2-10 in one-run games entering this series would win a pair of one-run games against the best team in baseball.

The win and a Brewers loss put the Cubs just four games out of first place in a weak N.L. Central. I continue to believe this division is winnable by the Cubs, and thus those speculating about a Cubs selloff this July ought to be thinking about what kinds of players the Cubs could pick up at the trading deadline to help them instead.

The Rays, good as they are, have lost nine of their last 13 road games and are just 13-12 overall on the road this year. Nevertheless, they have not been swept — nor have they lost three in a row — at all in 2023. The Cubs have the chance for an unlikely sweep Wednesday afternoon, which would certainly end this homestand on a high note. Justin Steele will start for the Cubs and Zach Eflin will go for Tampa Bay. Game time is 1:20 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network.