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2023 Cubs Heroes and Goats: Game 127

Winning ugly. I mean, that other team doesn’t own that label, right?

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

So many random thoughts after Thursday’s game. I think we start where the game basically ended. Ian Happ hit a lob wedge to right with two on in the 10th inning. The ball hung in the air forever and then dropped. The right fielder misplayed it and two runs scored. Dansby Swanson is an extremely aggressive baserunner with the game on the line. I’m not sure he wouldn’t have scored without the bobble, but it ended up not being stressful with the bobble. It felt like a quick turn around karma after the Cubs saw a game get away the other day in part when Cody Bellinger didn’t come up with one of those. Karma can be fickle and doesn’t always circle around that quickly, but I’ll take it. And I’ll circle around and hat tip to Dansby. That run was important and I appreciate his outstanding situational awareness to whatever extent it helped.

The Cubs win, they move to a season high seven games over .500. Flash back to June 26, 2021. On that night, the Cubs lost. It was their second consecutive loss following the combined no-hitter of the Dodgers. That losing streak would run 11 games and take them from nine over to two under, from a first place tie to fourth place nine games out. That streak saw the final implosion of Jake Arrieta. Over the next 35 days, nine Cubs would be traded. It was one of the most painful months in Cubs history. It felt like with those trades that the team would be starting over.

If you rewind six months before that, you see the actual start. Two more players were traded December 29, 2020. Owen Caissie was the key piece in that deal. Owen is a star for Double-A Tennessee, with a .920 OPS at close to four years younger than league average. Daniel Palencia, the winning pitcher in Thursday’s game, came in one of those 2021 trades, for Andrew Chafin. Kevin Alcántara has spent time as a top 100 prospect based on his time in South Bend. He has a .736 OPS at a little over two years younger than league average.

Bailey Horn was another player that came back in those deals. Bailey has struggled a bit for Iowa. Pete Crow-Armstrong is knocking down the door playing for Iowa. It remains possible he will get a look in September. Even if he doesn’t, it’s unlikely that the Cubs can keep their top prospect away from Wrigley Field for too long in 2024. Alexander Canario has returned from horrific injuries suffered in winter ball and appears to be hitting full stride. If PCA doesn’t see Wrigley in September, it’s possible that it will be Canario instead. He almost certainly would have arrived by now if not for the injuries.

All of that ignores the major league ready players acquired in Nick Madrigal, starting to show returns down the stretch here, and Codi Heuer, who was quite intriguing before a series of injuries sidetracked him. By December, the Cubs were signing Marcus Stroman and Yan Gomes. They also signed Mark Leiter Jr., who’d been out of the big leagues since 2018. The pieces were starting to fall into place.

This is a day where I remind you how quickly management turned this team around. 26 months ago, this team was left for dead on the side of the road. They’ve completely overhauled the roster and other than Madrigal and a little bit of Palencia, none of those prospects have reached the big leagues yet. But they are coming. The future is bright again for this organization.

Maybe just as important, the present is also bright. In the National League, only the Phillies have done more over the last 30 days to increase their playoff chances. There are 35 games remaining, but it sure looks like this Cubs team is heading to the playoffs. If you watched the broadcast on Marquee, you likely heard JD and Boog point out that this was the ninth straight game the Cubs have played that was decided by two or fewer runs. That takes it all of the way back to Sunday, August 13 in Toronto.

Some time ago I talked about the oddity that’s been the numerology of Cubs wins. They had a bunch of games they lit up the scoreboard. They are 33-0 when they score seven or more runs. There are games where they shut down the other team. They are 49-6 when they hold the opposition to three or fewer. I’ve always noted that virtually every team is good in those spots. Though clearly, no one is better at seven runs than the Cubs. Without looking, other teams may also be undefeated, but you can’t beat that record. That three or fewer is really damn good too.

What was missing were the games in the middle. Granted, it’s a small group. 6-4, 6-5, 5-4. They had no such wins. I only had amusement at that. Because the team was good enough that they should have some wins in those spots. There have now been three 6-4 wins in August and with Thursday’s 5-4 win, two of those.

A similar measure was their record in one-run games. On May 21, the Cubs lost 2-1 at Philadelphia. Their overall record stood at 20-26, and their record in one run games stood at 2-10. Included in there are all three of the Cubs losses when they’ve allowed two runs and one where they allowed three. Go back up two paragraphs. The Cubs are 49-6 when they allow three or fewer. Four of the six losses in that situation happened within the first 46 games. Pretty wacky.

With the win Thursday night, the Cubs are now 17-15 in one run games. 2-10 over the first 46 games. 15-5 over the last 91 games. Adbert Alzolay was the losing pitcher in three of those first 10 one run losses. He essentially took over the closer job on June 8. That game was a loss in Anaheim, but Alzolay threw the eighth. If you prefer, he took over the job the next day when he recorded his third save of the year in San Francisco. Alzolay has saves in nine of the 15 wins in one-run games after May 21.

You can connect those dots, right? The Cubs lost on June 8, finishing a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels. Heading to San Francisco, the Cubs season looked dead and buried. Marcus Stroman was the winner and Alzolay had the save in San Francisco. After that loss in Anaheim, the Cubs were 26-36. Alzolay took over the closer job and the Cubs are 41-24 since. The place where the record in one-run games turned? The three-game set against the Rays at the end of May. Two wins and one loss in one-run games against the team that was the best in baseball at the time. They won their next five one-run games and took off from there.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times. The MLB season is all about the margins. The best teams have the deepest rosters. High end talent is great. But how many postseasons has Mike Trout played in? Did adding Shohei Ohtani fix that? It’s more than elite talent. The regular season wants to know how good your 20th player is and often how good your 30th player is. Sometimes how good your 40th player is. Those Rays I talked about in the last paragraph are finding that out. They are definitely down there around 40 deep due to a wave of injuries capped off by their young superstar getting suspended for abhorrent off the field behavior allegations.

It took a while, but the Cubs have pretty much figured their roster out. They are regularly getting production more than 20 deep on the roster. The losses recently? Drew Smyly got shelled. A game they came up short against the Royals in a one-run loss. The Cubs made two errors in that one, including one by Patrick Wisdom, and they allowed two unearned runs. Not much before that, a game in which Jameson Taillon got shelled. Another game where Smyly got shelled in New York. A game where Kyle Hendricks got shelled. Taillon and Hendricks are definitely in the 20+ productive players. Wisdom and Smyly? Nope.

Through Thursday night, the Cubs are 14-7 in August. Of the seven losses, twice Smyly got shelled and once a Patrick Wisdom error. Throw those out? The team might be 17-4 and in first place in the Central. That’s how teams like the Dodgers and Braves get white hot and just start running the table. Sustained excellence comes when your organization is 30 deep. Not only 26 capable people on the roster, but a handful of players ready to step in and contribute when you have to dip into the minors.

The 2016 Cubs? I’ll argue 15 deep on the hitters and 13 deep on the pitchers. Your mileage may vary. But I give them credit for people like Matt Szczur (200 PA with an OPS+ of 88), David Ross (OPS+ of 106 at a key defensive position), Jason Heyward (Gold Glove), and both key acquisitions in Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman. It does not include Rob Zastryzny, who was fantastic in 16 innings of work, including a start.

Let’s turn to the three stars of this win.

  1. Justin Steele gets the top spot. This wasn’t his best work, but six innings, three runs (two earned) gets it done.
  2. Give me Nico Hoerner for the second spot. The only Cub with both a run and a run batted in (and nobody had two of either). Nico was one of three Cubs with two hits, one was a double.
  3. I’m not splitting hairs. All three of Julian Merryweather, Michael Fulmer and Adbert Alzolay faced three batters and retired them all. Fulmer did walk one and Alzolay allowed the bonus run. But I’m not holding that against either one of them.

Game 127, August 24: Cubs 5, at Pirates 4 (67-60)

Fangraphs

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

THREE HEROES:

  • Superhero: Ian Happ (.234). 1-4, HBP, RBI, K
  • Hero: Adbert Alzolay (.200). IP, 3 batters, 0 ER (Sv 20)
  • Sidekick: Daniel Palencia (.138). IP, 5 batters, 2 BB (W 4-0)

THREE GOATS:

  • Billy Goat: Jeimer Candelario (-.118). 0-3, SF, RBI
  • Goat: Mike Tauchman (-.113). 1-4, R
  • Kid: Dansby Swanson (-.098). 0-4, BB, R, K

WPA Play of the Game: Ian Happ batted with runners on second and third with one out in the tenth, the game tied. He flared one into right, Connor Joe misplayed it and the Cubs scored two, propelling them to victory. (.268)

*Pirates Play of the Game: Josh Palacios batted with a runner on first and one out in the third inning. He rushed one that ended up in the Allegheny River. It tied the game at three. (.202)

Poll

Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Ian Happ
    (51 votes)
  • 4%
    Adbert Alzolay
    (8 votes)
  • 5%
    Daniel Palencia
    (9 votes)
  • 15%
    Nico Hoerner (2-5, 2B, RBI, R)
    (28 votes)
  • 2%
    Michael Fulmer (IP, 3 batters, BB, K)
    (4 votes)
  • 39%
    Justin Steele (6 IP, 26 batters, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 R (2 ER), 6 K)
    (71 votes)
  • 4%
    Someone else (Leave your suggestion in the comments)
    (8 votes)
179 votes total Vote Now

Yesterday’s Winner: Julian Merryweather 92-83 over Yan Gomes (Superhero is 86-40)

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 +39
  • Adbert Alzolay +17
  • Ian Happ +15.5
  • Justin Steele +13
  • Marcus Stroman +12
  • Michael Fulmer -9
  • Patrick Wisdom -16
  • Drew Smyly -18
  • Jameson Taillon -20
  • Trey Mancini -20.5

Scoreboard watching: The Diamondbacks stayed white hot in game one of a four-game set, defeating the Reds. All of the other playoff contenders in the NL were off. The Cubs move to three games back of the Brewers. They move to a game ahead of the Reds for second in the division. The Phillies continue to hold the first Wild Card spot, two ahead of the Cubs. The Diamondbacks with their fifth straight win and eighth in 10 games, move into the third Wild Card spot, half a game behind the Cubs. The Reds now fall behind the idle Giants by 1 percentage point, falling to fifth place for three Wild Card slots, both teams half a game behind the D-Backs. The Marlins need to get things turned back around. Both the Giants and the Marlins have lost six of 10 and have fallen behind in a crowded race.

Friday sees the Marlins host the Nationals, the Phillies host the Cardinals, the Brewers host the Padres, the Reds/Diamondbacks series continues and the Giants host the Braves. One never knows, but the Giants and possibly one or both of the teams in the Reds/Diamondbacks series could be shuffled back in the pack with tough matchups.

Up Next: Game two of the four-game set with the Pirates. Kyle Hendricks (5-6, 3.83, 98⅔ IP) starts for the Cubs. Kyle is 2-2 with a 4.20 (nice!) ERA over his last seven starts (40⅔ IP). He’s been very strong over his last three starts, allowing six earned runs in 17⅓ innings. Kyle started a game in Pittsburgh back in June. He allowed three runs (one earned) over 6⅓ innings and was the winning pitcher.

The Pirates will start 27-year-old righty Mitch Keller. Mitch was a second round pick (64 overall) for the Pirates in 2014. Mitch is 10-8 with a 4.22 ERA in 155⅔ innings. He’s struggled a bit lately though, going 1-4 with a 6.98 ERA over his last seven. Going further, he’s 4-7 with a 5.17 over his last 15. That said, he won his last start in Minnesota, allowing two runs over seven. The start before that he held Cincinnati to one run over six and got a no-decision. So a bit of a mixed bag. He’s bouncing back after a really rough stretch. The Cubs have missed him so far in 2023.