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2023 Cubs Heroes and Goats: Game 97

The Cubs hold on to beat the Cardinals 4-3.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Barring a fairly surprising final 65 games to the Cubs season, this season is going to be a case study for a team with a slim margin of error. That is, a really painful lesson. This team isn’t bad. But it also isn’t really good. I saw this team as a 75-win team out of the offseason and many of you saw an 85-win team. The reality? This team is more or less an 81 win team. The margin of error is how it does around the fringes. With this win, they are actually 10-12 in one-run games.

That’s certainly not a bad number. Nor is their 2-2 mark in extra innings. Or the 13-13 in April or the 14-11 in June. But there was the 10-18 in May. There was a three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins in Miami at the end of April, all by one run. Through Friday’s game, the Cubs are 3-4 against the Cardinals, who have been one of the worst teams in baseball. To be fair, the Cardinals are 12-15 in the Central and a lot of that is a 2-5 record against the Pirates.

The Reds? The Cubs were 1-4 against them before losing to them was fashionable. A mediocre Angels team swept the Cubs. No one thing sticks out. None of those things are laughably bad. The Cubs have lost 21 games in which they’ve had the lead at some point. But the Cardinals have done that 29 times, so it’s not egregiously bad. Even the Rays who are still hanging out at the top have lost 18 games in which they’ve led. Sometimes that stat just means you have the lead at some point a lot.

The only one number that jumps out is the team’s 4-12 record when Jameson Taillon starts. But also, Javier Assad lost a bullpen game the first time that rotation spot came up. Caleb Kilian got the next shot and lost. So essentially 4-14 out of that spot in the rotation. This isn’t meant to be mean, it just is what it is. So it takes a lot of boggling, but that’s what it is with this team. A rough May. A black hole out of one of the spots in the rotation.

Interestingly, when the team has done what it was designed to do, it’s been lights out. The Cubs have now held opponents to three or fewer runs 47 times and have won 39 of them. All teams perform well when they hold their opposition to three or fewer, of course. You wouldn’t expect any different. But in just shy of half of the games, they’ve had a quality pitching performance and they win 83 percent of the time when that happens. The problem is, they are 7-43 when they don’t. They win just 14 percent of the time.

None of this is rocket science. This all just confirms what the eyes tell us. The offense hasn’t been good enough to paper over the bad pitching days. Teams across baseball win 52.4 percent of their games in which they score four runs. The Cubs improved to .500 with a win in such a game today.

As I’ve talked about a lot, the Cubs have scored seven or more runs in almost a quarter of their games. They’ve won all of those. Their only “high scoring” win was way back on April 11 when they beat the Mariners 14-9 in one of the more fun games of the year. It has tended to not matter which side goes first. When the offense gets in gear, the pitching has been dominant. When the pitching has been dominant, the offense rises to the occasion.

Friday afternoon was one of those games where the pitching was quite good and the offense did just enough to win. The bullpen wasn’t as good as it has generally been once the Cubs have gotten the lead and the “A” relievers got in there. Julian Merryweather has tailed off considerably as we talked about after his last appearance. His ERA has reached 4.10 after a run while only recording two outs. They were both strikeouts. So certainly the results aren’t all bad. But this is now five of his last eight appearances have resulted in runs allowed. 7⅓ innings in July, 10 hits, six walks, nine strikeouts, nine runs (eight earned).

So what’s happened to Julian and do we expect it to continue? His strand rate in July is all of the way down to 53.6 percent, his HR/FB up to 18.2 percent and his ground ball rate ticked down to 27 percent. For the season, his strand is at 76.2 percent, his HR/FB at 8.9 percent and his GB% is at 36 percent. Exit velocity is actually down a tick. So there’s reason to suspect there is at least a little bad luck in there. Though it is worth noting that FIP has him at 7.34. So they aren’t seeing it as all bad luck to be sure.

While Julian has been on the wrong side of July, Cody Bellinger has definitely been on the right side for the month. Cody had three more hits, including a double and homer. As has been noted by many, he leads all of baseball in July hits this year. 71 plate appearances, 30 hits, four doubles, six homers, 17 runs, 15 RBI. The last time he had more hits in a month than this, it was April 2019, his MVP season. That April, he had 37 hits, including 10 homers. He’ll need seven hits in nine games to tie. It feels like a shoo-in the way he’s hitting right now.

Bellinger is certainly my player number one of this game. Justin Steele takes the second spot. It’s an odd contrast. Marcus Stroman has lost all three starts he’s made against the Cardinals. This is three wins in three starts now for Steele. In this one, he last one out into the seventh inning. He allowed six hits, a walk and two runs. He also hit a batter and threw a wild pitch. But he struck out nine. And now he matches Stroman with 10 wins each.

I do like to put guys in this spot who I’ve been hard on when they turn things around. Miles Mastrobuoni has had his best week as a pro. He had his first three hit game in the majors on Tuesday. He had two more Wednesday. He scored two runs in each of those games. Today he had two more hits including his first career homer. With seven hits over his last three games, he has his season line up to .217/.309/.289 (wRC+ 70). Obviously, that line is still very rough, but add in eight steals and positional flexibility and I’ll lay off of him for at least a little while. Kudos to a good week.

Game 97, July 21: Cubs 4, Cardinals 3 (46-51)


Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.


  • Superhero: Cody Bellinger (.222). 3-4, HR, 2B, 2 RBI, R
  • Hero: Mark Leiter Jr. (.212). ⅔ IP, 2 batters, BB
  • Sidekick: Justin Steele (.170). 6⅓ IP, 27 batters, 6 H, BB, 2 R, 9 K, HBP, WP (W 10-3)


  • Billy Goat: Julian Merryweather (-.102). ⅔ , H, BB, R, 2 K
  • Goat: Michael Fulmer (-.092). ⅓ IP, 3 batters, 2 BB, K
  • Sidekick: Seiya Suzuki (-.087). 0-4, 3 K

WPA Play of the Game: The bases were loaded with only one out in the eighth inning when Mark Leiter Jr. got Alec Burleson to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. The run expectancy after bases loaded with one out is 1.57 and the Cubs were holding just a one run lead. So that was absolutely the play of the game. (.349)

*Cardinals Play of the Game: Nolan Arenado batted with runners on second and third with two outs against Julian Merryweather in the seventh inning. He singled and two runs scored. (.138)


Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?

This poll is closed

  • 64%
    Cody Bellinger
    (71 votes)
  • 2%
    Mark Leiter Jr.
    (3 votes)
  • 23%
    Justin Steele
    (26 votes)
  • 6%
    Miles Mastrobuoni
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
    (3 votes)
110 votes total Vote Now

Yesterday’s Winner: Yan Gomes (Superhero is 65-31)

Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)

  • Marcus Stroman +18
  • Ian Happ +15.5
  • Mike Tauchman/Cody Bellinger +14
  • Justin Steele +12
  • Michael Fulmer -9
  • Julian Merryweather -12.5
  • Patrick Wisdom -13
  • Jameson Taillon -17
  • Trey Mancini -20

Up Next: Game three of the four-game series. The Cubs will open the day Saturday six games back of three different wild card teams who are presently all essentially tied. The Cubs will have an odd six-game week leading up to the trade deadline. Those games are on the road following an off day Monday. But the road only leads to the south side of Chicago on Tuesday/Wednesday and then a relatively short trip to St. Louis the rest of the week. Those two teams are well off of the pace but also two teams who love to beat the Cubs.

One thing at a time though. First, the Saturday game. In a move that looks really odd on paper, Michael Fulmer appears set to start the game for the Cubs. He threw to three batters in the eighth inning of this game. So even if the Cubs wanted to go bullpen game, it’s an odd choice. And what about Drew Smyly, who’s spot this would ordinarily be? Drew’s been scuffling a bit, no doubt. He’s 7-7 with a 4.50 ERA. Ignoring the Pirates, who the Cubs steamrolled, Drew hasn’t won since May 23 against the Mets. After that start against the Mets, Drew was 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He’s had essentially one good start since. And even in that one, he walked five in five innings, so good is relative. I get it and yet I don’t. If he’s on the roster, I think Smyly has to start. Maybe he’ll pitch the lion’s share in relief?

On the other side, the Cardinals have Miles Mikolas (6-5, 4.14, 121⅔ IP). He’s 2-2 in his last seven, with a 4.39 ERA in 41 innings. Last time out he beat the Marlins, allowing three runs on seven hits, no walks in six innings. He only struck out three. He made one start against the Cubs way back on May 8 and pitched decently. He lasted 4⅓ innings and allowed a run on four hits and three walks. In his career, he is 5-3 with a 2.15 ERA against the Cubs in 17 appearances, 15 of those starts. He’s thrown more innings against the Cubs than any team other than the Pirates.