I confess, if you missed it, in the comments to yesterday’s piece, I wrote about hoping for a 5-1 lead with the Cubs scoring a bunch of runs early and cruising. 18 runs a game is interesting, but there has been so much to write, I’ve been writing until after two in the morning. I have to say though, I said 5-1 and I think I was pretty clear about coasting to victory and not having to sweat it out a bit.
The beat keeps on and I take my hat off to this team and this organization. Top to bottom, this organization has rebuilt a team in the span of two years, 2021 trade deadline to 2023 trade deadline with Jeimer Candelario being the last piece of that puzzle. You might not like every decision they made to get to this point. I might not like some of the decisions David Ross with whatever input he gets from Theo Epstein’s nerds that he left behind when he moved on. But we don’t have to like what they’ve done. They more or less haven’t asked for any of our opinions.
But fun is back. Competency is back. Execution is back. Your mileage may vary, but I’m enjoying the heck out of this ride. And I appreciate this team for sneaking up on me. June’s repositioning was so subtle that I didn’t notice it. Even when you look at it, 14-11 doesn’t blow your doors off. Feels like ho hum, no? If your mental math isn’t great or you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s basically a 91-win pace.
Many, many years ago, my best friend at the time and I had the kind of long discussion that two really good friends who have enjoyed hundreds of baseball games together, at the stadium, over dinner, at the local establishment or just sitting on the couch. We went round and round and back and forth. I bet most of you have that friend. The conversation surrounded the concept that it mattered how many teams you were behind when you are trying to get back into contention.
With the caveat that if it is football or near the end of any other sports season where you start running out of games it absolutely matters and a lot, I’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter how many teams you have to pass. And I’ll tell you that wasn’t my position, it was his. He pointed out at the time that the problem isn’t usually that you have to overcome all of those teams. The problem is that you weren’t good and aren’t likely to be better.
But, if things have changed, then everything changes. If you were held back by an injury or injuries to key players. Whatever, if there was a reason why you were bad then, but you aren’t now. That’s a different story. The real question is do you have the kind of talent to win 10 straight? To win 15 of 20? You’ve got to find a way to really stack a chunk of wins. When you do that, you are going to naturally catch people. These Cubs haven’t yet been good enough to win 15 of 20. At least not in this stretch of games.
But they have won 14 of their last 20 games. On July 9, the Cubs beat the Yankees 7-4 in game number 89. The Cubs were 42-47. That was the 10th best record in the National League. They were seven games back in the Central in third place. They were 6½ behind the Giants in the wild card race. Enter 14 wins in 20 games. They are 56-53. They have ninth best record in the NL. They are in third in the Central, 2½ games back. They are two games out of the wild card spot. The two teams in front of them are half a game and 1½ games ahead. Those teams are 3-7 and 5-5 respectively over their last 10 games.
The heroic part has been done. They don’t have to play epic baseball the rest of the way to make the playoffs. They are back above sea level. From right here, if the Cubs targeted 85 wins, that would require a record of 29-24 over the final 53 games of the year. They’ve just won 31 of their last 53. It would actually be cooling off for this team. This team shows no signs of cooling off. These next 10 days present some challenges, including not having a letdown after a week of playoff caliber baseball, no off time and sandwiched between two tough series.
If this team can stay near where they are now, they’ll absolutely be positioned to overtake the field on the way home. It will certainly be interesting to see if there is any collateral damage for the Reds after this series. The Reds were leading 6-1 heading to the bottom of the third inning on Monday. The final six innings of that game and the following three games saw the Cubs score 45 runs (in 31 turns at bat). Meanwhile, the Reds managed 18 runs (in 33 turns at bat). To be fair, the 18 runs in 33 turns at bat was pretty good. The Cubs pitching staff, and particularly their starters, did little to stifle a talented Reds offense.
The Cubs bullpen threw 17⅓ innings in this series and allowed six runs. So this Reds team is human and it does bleed. The Cubs offense that scored 45 runs in 31 innings, they rarely appeared human. This was as good of a stretch by Cubs offense as I can remember. Buckle up, the team is gearing up for a playoff race. Who’d have believed?
Yeah, aright. A bunch of you. Whatever. Let’s get to the three stars of this game.
- As was frequently the case in this series, there was a Cubs reliever who came into the game and stopped this dynamic Reds team in its tracks. In Thursday night’s game, it was Mark Leiter Jr. He faced six batters, recorded five outs and struck out four. Can’t do it much better than that. Oh yeah, he inherited a runner on second with no outs and the Cubs up two.
- With two outs and the bases loaded in the third inning, the Cubs were up 2-1. Christopher Morel was at the plate. He drew a key walk. Luke Weaver lost the strike zone in the inning after a strikeout/wild pitch that would have ended the inning. Morel showed patience in a key spot in a huge situation in a huge game. Sometimes it can look heroic when you go hitless in three at bats with a walk.
- That bullpen was so good in the series that I’m going to loop back and grab another one of them. Adbert Alzolay entered with two outs in the eighth, the Cubs only up a run at the time before the Cubs scored in the ninth to restore the lead. He retired all four batters he faced, two by strikeout, along the way to his 13th save in 14 chances.
Game 109, August 3: Cubs 5, Reds 3 (56-53)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Mark Leiter Jr. (.202). 1⅔ IP, 6 batters, 4 K, HBP
- Hero: Ian Happ (.101). 1-2, 2B, BB, RBI, R, K
- Sidekick: Adbert Alzolay (.099). 1⅓ IP, 4 batters, 2 K (SV, 13)
- Billy Goat: Mike Tauchman (-.061). 1-4, 2B, K
- Goat: Yan Gomes (-.031). 0-3, SF, RBI, 3 K
- Kid: Nick Madrigal (-.015). 1-4
(Every player that appeared on either side tonight came into the game in the top 11 in the overall standings — the best players in the biggest situations.)
WPA Play of the Game: Cody Bellinger batted with runners on first and second with two outs and the game tied 1-1. He singled and Nico Hoerner came around to score. Ian Happ made it to third. (.124)
*Reds Play of the Game: Spencer Steer batted with one out and the bases empty in the eighth inning against Julian Merryweather, the Cubs up two. Fergie Jenkins always said if you were going to allow a homer, make sure it’s a solo shot. That’s what this was, but still nerve-wracking as it cut the lead to one. (.100)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Mark Leiter Jr.
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Christopher Morel (Superhero is 70-38)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
- Cody Bellinger +23
- Ian Happ +18.5
- Justin Steele +14
- Marcus Stroman +12
- Adbert Alzolay +11
- Michael Fulmer -10
- Drew Smyly -12
- Jameson Taillon -13
- Patrick Wisdom -15
- Trey Mancini -20.5
Up Next: As noted above, the Cubs wake up today 2½ out in the Central and two games back in the wild card race. This weekend’s series won’t have the kind of tension that a series against a division rival does. But from a competition standpoint, this is getting turned up to 12. The Braves at 69-37 hold the best record in baseball. Their run differential is tied for tops in baseball and their next win will almost certainly get them to 70 wins before anyone else after the Rays led to every milestone level before Atlanta breezed by them.
Kyle Hendricks was the lone starter not to work in the Reds series, so he grabs the opener against the Braves. Kyle is 4-5 with a 3.49 ERA in 77⅓ innings. After a nice stretch, he’s tailed off a little at just 1-3 with a 4.22 ERA over his last seven starts (42⅔ IP). He lost his last start though he didn’t pitch badly. He allowed eight hits, a walk and three runs over seven innings.
The Braves start a guy with only two wins! Oh. Says here 29-year-old lefty Max Fried has only made five starts this year, the last of those being back on May 5. He was 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings at the time of his injury. The injury was the dreaded forearm tightness, but he’s back. He did make four rehab starts after the lengthy absence. Most of you will remember the former seventh overall pick of the Padres in the 2012 draft as the runner up to the NL Cy Young last year. He came to the Braves in a long-ago deal (2014) that sent Justin Upton to San Diego. He is 56-26 with a 3.05 ERA in 130 games, 113 of them starts. When health, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the NL, emerging as a 17-game winner in 2019. He won 14 each of the last two years and won a World Series.