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2023 Cubs Heroes and Goats: Game 120

Christopher Morel’s big moment gives the Cubs a 4-3 win!

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I have tried hard over the years to keep this a positive space. I haven’t had to write in a few years about not getting too high or too low. I mean you can’t. When your team is good, you have to take the good with the bad. If you get too high in the moment, the crash is painful. If you get too low, then you might not enjoy the fun. I’d have been expounding on that thought until that crazy finish happened.

It’s funny how close in proximity this was on the calendar to the Bote Ultimate Slam game. It was a June game in 2018 when Jason Heyward hit a grand slam to walk one off for the Cubs. That one gave the Cubs a two-run win. From a WPA standpoint, this falls between those two. This was a three-run homer, down two in the ninth. Bote’s came with two outs, Heyward’s with one, Morel’s with none. I think having a favorite would be like trying to decide which child is your favorite. You just don’t do it.

I have to say, I watched the first three innings of this game, with no hits by either side, while my family was out. They came home and we watched a little TV together as a family. I had the phone on my lap streaming the game. For three more batters. I wanted to see the first hit and I did see Andrew Benintendi’s hit that was the first for either team. I was just closing the window when Luis Robert Jr. followed with a second single and the usually dependable Ian Happ was making an error. The last thing I saw was Javier Assad’s wild pitch that led to the first run.

It’s funny how you can get a feel for the ebb and flow of baseball and sometimes, you can kind of feel things before they happen. (Or I say enough things on the internet that some of them end up being true. You pick.) I was concerned last week that the Mets series was a trap sitting between an emotionally draining homestand against two good teams and a trip to face a very good Blue Jays team. A trap series it was. Then, I was concerned that the White Sox fought hard all weekend against the Brewers. They remind me a bit of the Cubs the last two years, finding some positives with the guys around after the trade deadline. I feared that a team that really delights in beating the Cubs would be a problem. And I was right again.

Anyways, as serendipity would have it, the TV show we were watching wrapped up during the top of the ninth. I had been following the game as I usually do as it helps me decide the tone and substance of my writing. I was amused with the Nick Madrigal homer and trying to find the humor in that moment in an otherwise frustrating game. That Mike Clevinger can be a tough nut to crack when he is good and he was very good in this one, throwing seven scoreless.

I had wanted to watch the bottom of the ninth. I knew Gregory Santos somehow recorded five outs on only 16 pitches on Tuesday night. But now, he’s going in back to back games after throwing basically two innings, facing mostly the same guys both nights. I figured they’d at least give him a scare. Boy, did they.

I’m going to not do my usual three stars of the game and as always, Al does the recaps. I am not going to take you through this game blow by blow. But I am going to talk about the anatomy of a come from behind victory. A come from behind victory usually ends with an iconic moment. Certainly, if the come from behind ends in a walk off, there is always that iconic moment. How much can you remember about the game when Jon Lester had his walk off bunt? Some of you probably remember the starting pitcher. A few of you will remember who was on the mound for the Mariners. Bur how many of you remember a lot more than that?

And yet, you never come from behind without a team effort. Even if you want to give me a game like the Sandberg game with his double iconic moment, there are always a score of performances along the way. The Sandberg game has been shown so many times as rain delay theater that it’s probably not even a good trivia question anymore as to who eventually walked that one off.

So who were the supporting cast in this one? Javier Assad. Four hits and two walks over six innings. It’s actually some pretty unfortunate cluster luck that he ended up allowing three runs, two earned. He threw six strong innings and only made the one really unfortunate mistake against Gavin Sheets. Javier obviously has earned the right to keep going as long as he continues to be effective like this.

Mark Leiter Jr. is so consistently good that it is easy to take him for granted. Nut there was another three up and three down inning, one via strikeout. It was down near the bottom of the order, but I’m not deducting points for that. It was important to keep this one within a homer range from tying or winning and he did that.

Then the Cubs tried to get cute and get through an inning with Jose Cuas. A single and two walks and the bases were loaded with two outs. The White Sox were on the verge of blowing this one out as Tuesday’s hero, Luis Robert, stepped to the plate. That led the Cubs to summon Michael Fulmer.

Look, I know that a lot of the people wanted him jettisoned off of a short pier earlier this year, never too be heard from again. If you were one of those people, passion is great, but take a few deep breaths the next time you are ready to cast someone away. Sports allows a guy to overcome their struggles. Fulmer has done that. I’ll not cherry pick any numbers. Michael Fulmer is now 3-5 on the year with a 4.05 ERA in 53⅓ innings of work, not cornerstone of the bullpen kind of numbers for sure.

He still, strangely, has the worst home run to fly ball ratio he’s had since 2020’s oddball season. That despite having one of the lower ground ball rates of his career. That has been a bad combo for sure and he’s allowed seven homers. That 2020 season was a dumpster fire, so the worst of everything for him always refers back to since 2020. His strand rate is falling in line with his career numbers. His BABIP is exactly on is career numbers. His ERA is only a few ticks off. He is basically what the Cubs signed.

Except that he has the highest strikeout rate of his career. His career average is 7.64 per nine innings. Counting Wednesday’s appearance, that now sits at 10.29. That is after he faced three batters and struck them all out. No margin for error. And he struck out the 3-4-5 hitters in the Sox lineup. Amazing.

I can only guess that pumped Nick Madrigal up watching that, because he then led off the bottom of the eighth with a pinch-hit homer into the basket. Nick has matched a career high with two homers this season. Sometime before the end of the season, he will set a career high for most plate appearances. His previous high was 228 in 2022 for the Cubs. When he sets that career high, he will have increased his number of plate appearances in each of his seasons as a major leaguer.

With the word that Marcus Stroman could be done for the 2023 season, it was rumored that Drew Smyly might go back into the rotation. If that is an idea, then it sure was odd that he was out there throwing the ninth inning, trying to keep the game close. He struck out the first two batters he faced, making five straight Sox hitters to strikeout before Elvis Andus singled but was out trying to run on Ian Happ.

That set the stage for the bottom of the ninth. Cody Bellinger doubled for his second hit of the night. That’s becoming so common that it is hard not to just take it for granted. But that ball was gapped off of the wall and set the tone. Dansby Swanson then worked a walk and set the table for Christopher Morel’s heroics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Before we move to the WPA numbers, let me finish with a note on Christopher Morel. I could not be happier for the young man. He plays with so much passion, it’s hard not to love watching him play. We’re reminded of so many free swinging power hitters in recent Cubs history as we watch him. But we can also see a young man that is working very hard to keep getting better. Watching him come through in that moment was electric. I was delighted as he appeared to hug every player, coach and person involved with the Cubs Wednesday night. The elation as he received the obligatory water and more bath that happens after a walk off hit was so much fun to watch. I hope this is as big of a compliment as I can give to a guy. Morel makes me enjoy watching baseball the way that I did as a kid. I feel his passion and root so hard for him to succeed.

Game 120, August 16: Cubs 4, White Sox 3 (62-58)

Fangraphs

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

THREE HEROES:

  • Superhero: Christopher Morel (.642). 2-4, HR, 3 RBI, R, K

*This is the 3rd highest WPA score of the season by a Cub and the highest by a hitter.

  • Hero: Cody Bellinger (.088). 2-4, 2B, R, K
  • Sidekick: Nico Hoerner (.084). 0-2, BB, HBP, K

THREE GOATS:

  • Billy Goat: Seiya Suzuki (-.168). 0-3, DP
  • Goat: Ian Happ (-.079). 1-4, DP
  • Kid: Javier Assad (-.072). 6 IP, 23 batters, 4 H, 2 BB, 3 R (2 ER), 4 K, WP

WPA Play of the Game: When Christopher Morel stepped to the plate after the Cubs had runners on first and second, the run expectancy was 1.49. So the statistics suggested there was a good chance of one run, but the second was cloudy. The third was the cherry on top though. (.676)

*White Sox Play of the Game: Gavin Sheets batted in the fifth inning with a runner on first and no outs. He hit a two run homer to put the Sox up three. (.163)

Poll

Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Christopher Morel
    (227 votes)
  • 0%
    Cody Bellinger
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Nico Hoerner
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Nick Madrigal (1-1, HR, RBI, R)
    (2 votes)
  • 26%
    Michael Fulmer (IP, 3 batters, 3 inherited runners, 3 K)
    (85 votes)
  • 1%
    Javier Assad
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
    (0 votes)
322 votes total Vote Now

Yesterday’s Winner: Nico Hoerner (Superhero is 80-39)

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.

  • Cody Bellinger +37
  • Adbert Alzolay +14
  • Ian Happ +12.5
  • Marcus Stroman/Mike Tauchman +12
  • Julian Merryweather -11
  • Patrick Wisdom/Drew Smyly/Jameson Taillon -15
  • Trey Mancini -20.5

Scoreboard watching: Wednesday night, the Brewers lost and the Reds won. The Cubs move to 2½ games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and percentage points ahead of the Reds for second place. In the Wild Card race, the Phillies won and the Giants lost. The Cubs sit in the third Wild Card spot, 3½ games behind the Phillies and 1½ behind the Giants. The Reds won, the Marlins lost, the Diamondbacks lost and the Padres won. The Cubs are one percentage point ahead of the Reds and Marlins, the Diamondbacks are 1½ back and the Padres 4½.

Upcoming series of interest: The D-Backs and Padres start a four game series on Thursday. The Marlins visit a Dodgers team that has now won 10 straight. The Reds host the Blue Jays. The Giants travel to Atlanta.

Up next for the Cubs: An off day Thursday. With the Marlins and Reds also off, the Cubs can’t lose their hold on the final Wild Card spot on an off day. They’ll play before both those teams take the field on Friday. The Royals are at 39-83 but play a game in Kansas City against the Mariners Thursday afternoon. The Mariners sit one game out of the third Wild Card spot in the AL and the Royals have won one and lost the other two by a total of three runs. So they are putting up some fight.

Jameson Taillon (7-7, 5.71, 104 IP) starts for the Cubs. His numbers over his last seven starts are quite a bit more encouraging at 5-1 with a 3.79 in 40⅓ innings. They were significantly better than that before he allowed eight runs on eight hits and two walks in just three innings. The Cubs really need him to bounce back and they really need their offense to get back in gear and take care of business this weekend against a Royals team that allows the third most runs per game in the majors. The Cubs offense has been the fifth highest in runs per game. This should be a very favorable matchup and the Cubs need to take care of business and pick up three wins.

The Royals will start 25-year-old lefty Cole Ragans in Friday’s series opener. Ragans was the 30th overall pick by the Rangers in the 2016 draft. He is 3-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 47 innings. He’s made 21 appearances, just four of them starts. He’s made three August starts and is 1-1 with a 2.55 ERA in 17⅔ innings, so he is no pushover. He lost on Saturday to the Cardinals when he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings of work.