Ladies and gentlemen, I’m getting a sketchy story down here outside of Tampa. I’m hearing a story about a group of men on the north side of Chicago. They were last seen wearing pinstripes and they are apparently armed and dangerous. Some have said these men have been impersonating the Cubs. One Derek Shelton declined to be interviewed for this story, but apparently he said the path of destruction was as surprising as it was immense. He and his friends were last seen running for the airport looking to get out of town as fast as humanly possible.
All kidding aside, what was that? I’ve talked about trying to be pragmatic and not letting the fandom take too much hold. I mean let’s be clear, I’m the Negative Nate that had this team winning only 75 games when most in this part had them anywhere from 5-10 wins higher. So certainly I didn’t see this coming. Without looking it up, I know I did write one day during the last road trip that if this team could get their offense going and scrap together some bullpen work that this team could go on a run. I’m pretty sure they were roadkill the very next night.
I don’t even think just this year, but that’s pretty much always the way with this team isn’t it? I’ve used the analogy so many times that I’m sure it’s tired by now. But Lucy always moves the football. And the Cubs always end up laying flat on their back staring up at the stars swirling over their heads wondering what went wrong.
This is somewhat unprecedented in recent memory. I think I remember a September series against the Cardinals a very long time ago. But there has to be one since then, right? You know, a series that was circled on the schedule for when the Cubs really just needed to sweep a series. Sometimes they’d win two out of three, but it never seemed like they would come up short at the full three game swing in the standings to make things interesting.
Pair it with the Brewers in free fall, at least temporarily, and the apparent demise of the Cardinals and you have a team that just put itself back into the race. Is it a race though? The Comedy Central is now led by a team one game over .500, with another team at ,500 and yet another at one game under right behind that. All three teams have 34 wins. A Cubs team that has underachieved over and over this season now sits at 31 wins. With five wins in their last six games and nine in their last 16, this team is in contention.
Cody Bellinger returned to the Cubs Thursday night. Justin Steele should return Saturday. No one can know what to expect for him and he’ll have to be eased into the mix, but Codi Heuer’s return is imminent. With Steele, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have as good a top four as anyone in the league does. You can say that Smyly has struggled of late, we don’t know what Steele will be post injury and Hendricks just came back. But it would be realistic to counter that Jameson Taillon almost has to bounce back some. If you’ve watched baseball for a long time, you know that there is a thing that happens with veterans when they are having a terrible year. Often, you write them off. And then the last half the year they are the player they always were and their numbers even out quite a bit.
I’m just going to say that the Cubs going on a sustained run is probably less crazy than sweeping this series. If we said the two teams were equally weighted and ignored home field advantage to call it just a straight coin flip, the odds of three straight heads is one time in eight. If we adjust for winning percentage, the odds were a decent bit worse than that, even with the series at home. Sweeping a series is hard. Sweeping a series against a team that is arguably better than you? That’s rough.
Of course, the question is: Are they better? As much as I was the Negative Nate in the preseason with that 75-win pick, I did have one thing I was consistent with. When someone would derisively say that the Cubs were struggling because the front office put together a flawed team, I’d always ask if it was true that all of the teams ahead of the Cubs in the standings had better rosters. To be clear, the Pirates have accumulated a lot of young talent. They’ve surely reached “intriguing.” But do they have more talent than the Cubs? Flaws and all, I would at every point in time have conceded that there is a lot of talent in the Cubs locker room. Does it mean those flaws aren’t there? No.
If I had one thing to say I was truly surprised by in the early going it was that this front office didn’t churn the roster to the point where it was maximizing the talent it had. For a while there, every button they pushed was wrong. Slowly we can see Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, and Mark Leiter Jr. emerging from the rubble. We have Anthony Kay looking interesting through a couple of appearances. We have the Michaels showing signs of offering some value. That is, Rucker and Fulmer.
We see another Mike in Tauchman coming out of nowhere to provide some value. We see signs of Christopher Morel making some adjustments. The roster is looking a little deeper. There’s a lot of work to be done. But this was a heck of a way to say this team will not go gently.
Let’s find three stars of the night in another come from behind win.
I’m again going with a couple of honorable mentions. They go to Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger. Stroman’s strong performance in this one gets lost a little with the production by the offense. But he was largely untouchable outside of that rough third inning. He allowed three singles and a walk in that inning. And four singles and two walks overall.
Bellinger? It was subtle, but there were two grounders to first in that third inning. You could tell that Cody wanted to make a play. But he didn’t force it. He stepped on first each time. The Pirates plated two in the inning. But the Cubs didn’t let it blow up. On that second ground ball to first, the Pirates were already up 1-0 and the run expectancy there with the bases loaded one out is 1.56. So there was a good chance the Pirates would come out with three or more runs in the inning. He took the out, Stroman escaped and the rest was history.
- Ian Happ gets my top spot. I’m going to start with a little bit of Heroes and Goats history. Ian has landed the Superhero spot three straight games. There isn’t a super easy way to search my spreadsheets, but I’m fairly certain that Frank Schwindel from September 3-6, 2021 actually had four straight Superhero awards. Three of those were against the Pirates as part of a four game sweep of the Pirates. Happ had an amazing series. He capped it with a three hit game that only lacked a homer for the cycle. Two runs and two runs batted in that accounted for four total runs.
- Christopher Morel has gotten hot again. He only has the one homer in this little stretch, so it’s not as glaring as his last hot streak. But he too had a three hit night. He also had a triple. He had a sacrifice fly as well. Two runs batted in and a run scored.
- Nico Hoerner was the third Cub with a multi-hit game. He had a pair of hits and a walk. He scored twice and stole a base.
Game 68, June 15: Cubs 7, Pirates 2 (31-37)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Ian Happ (.274). 3-5, 3B, 2B, 2RBI, 2R
- Hero: Christopher Morel (.179). 3-3, 3B, SF, 2RBI, R
- Sidekick: Nico Hoerner (.159). 2-4, BB, 2R, SB, DP
- Billy Goat/Goat: Seiya Suzuki/Tucker Barnhart (-.128). Suzuki: 0-4, BB, 3K; Barnhart: 0-3, BB, 3K
- Kid: Mike Tauchman (-.123). 1-4, BB, 2K
WPA Play of the Game: Ian Happ batted with a runner on first and one out in the fifth inning, the Cubs down one. The run expectancy there is .51. Basically, a coin flip to score one run with a nominal amount of bigger innings than that. Happ doubled and Nico Hoerner came all of the way around to score and tie the game. As it turns out, this was one of those nominal possibilities. The Cubs would go on to score four more runs after Happ’s hit. You could feel the wind escaping the Pirate balloon as the inning progressed. (.179)
*Pirates Play of the Game: The game was scoreless in the third inning when Jason Delay singled with a runner on first and no outs. Here we have a run expectancy of .87. When the leadoff hitter reaches first in any way, you pretty much expect to score a run. Delay’s single was part of the two run rally that gave the Pirates early control of the game. (.102)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Marcus Stroman (6IP, 24 batters, 4H, 2BB, 2R, 5K, W 8-4)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Mike Tauchman (Superhero is 47-20)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Marcus Stroman +20
- Ian Happ +18.5
- Adbert Alzolay +11
- Justin Steele +10
- Dansby Swanson +9.5
- Miles Mastrobuoni -9
- Jameson Taillon -10
- Patrick Wisdom -11
- Nico Hoerner -13
- Trey Mancini -14
Up Next: The Baltimore Orioles come to town. The Orioles are in second place behind the Tampa Rays in the AL East. At 43-25, they are an even five games back, but solidly in a wild card spot. That division looks very likely to put three teams in the playoffs if they don’t annihilate one another. They come in having won seven of 10. They also sport a 21-12 road record that is a virtual match for their home record.
Kyle Hendricks (1-2, 3.09, 23⅓ IP) is the Cubs starter. Kyle is coming off his best start in quite some time. It’s only four games, so it’s too soon to know for sure whether vintage Kyle is emerging. Or is the one great game just pulling up the other three starts? He did hold the very good Tampa Bay Rays to one run on six hits over five innings a few starts ago.
The Orioles counter with 29-year-old lefty Cole Irvin (1-2, 7.85, 18⅓ IP). Irvin was a fifth round pick of the Phillies back in 2016. Once upon a time I used to point out that the Cubs had excelled against lefties, but they’ve tailed off a bit lately. Irivin will be making his fifth start and sixth appearance overall. Looking at just his last three outings, we learn a little. On June 10 he threw 5⅓ innings against the Royals, allowing six hits and a run and picking up his lone win. His last appearance before that was a two-batter outing against the Blue Jays on May 20. He got an out and allowed a hit. Before that, he had a start April 13 against Oakland. In that one he allowed six runs on only five hits in four innings. The A’s. In April. Quite a mixed bag, but trending well for the lefty. He made 30 starts for the A’s in 2022 and 62 starts over two years with that club.