As a new week dawns, we first have to close the book on the one that just ended. Sunday afternoon, the Cubs salvaged one game in the series with the Diamondbacks. In doing so, they finished off a winning homestand. Baseball, very much like life, is so often measured by context and perspective. From the perspective of a three-game sweep of the Giants to start the homestand, you certainly wanted to get greedy and take five or more on the homestand. At the same time, looking at seven games against two playoff contenders desperately fighting to stay in competition for one of the last two playoff positions, four wins is pretty good.
Certainly, there are situations where you look at seven games and circle certain ones you’d really like to win. Had say this been three games in the N.L. Central and four out of it or four games against a contender and three against a non-contender, then there is certainly a preference in which games are won. On this homestand, if you could place your four, I don’t doubt you’d prefer that at least two of them be wins over the Diamondbacks. Alas, it didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean that four wins wasn’t good. It doesn’t mean that the two biggest goals right now are getting into the playoffs and reaching at least one spot higher on the playoff ladder.
As we enter the final three weeks of the regular season, this Cubs team is very much in contention. They remain likely to be a playoff team. They remain in the hunt for that climb a spot or two higher and hosting playoff games. Without considering the ramifications of playing at Milwaukee or at Philadelphia, I will point out that playing at a cold Wrigley Field where the ball isn’t carrying isn’t necessarily a great thing. As we saw Friday and Saturday, this offense can struggle against strong pitching if the home run isn’t readily available. The one thing the Cubs everyday lineup lacks is the kind of prodigious power that isn’t stifled by the conditions.
The purest power hitters on the roster currently, I suspect, are Patrick Wisdom, Alexander Canario and Christopher Morel in that order. Ignoring the catching position as part of the regular rotation of players, those three players see the least amount of playoff time. I’m not casting any aspersions on that decision making, David Ross has identified his most consistently productive players and he is getting them as much time as he can down the stretch. I’m certainly not knocking that decision making.
And so it was that the team got superlative pitching performances Friday and Saturday from its starting pitching and failed to win either one. As frustrating as that was, it wasn’t carrying a no-hitter into the 11th inning and then squandering two different leads and losing in extra innings. If you were busy Sunday with family and/or football, make sure you look into the Sunday afternoon for the Brewers. They had a really disappointing one by their standards. For years now that’s exactly the kind of game that they never seem to lose. But lose they did in that one.
But the Cubs have had both of those kinds of losses lately. A little over a week ago, they saw late leads get away in a pair of games against the Reds. And they weren’t no hit games, but on Friday and Saturday of this week they had very strong starts and lost. Somewhere along the way the phrase it happens to everyone became cliché, but that is the truth here. These things happen to everyone. That doesn’t make it less frustrating when they happen. But stuff happens.
Don’t dismiss the value of those performances by the starters Friday and Saturday. Weeks ago I said this team would go as far as its starting pitching carries it. At the time, it was winning a lot of games on the back of its offense and a dominant bullpen. But it seemed obvious to me that they needed to get back to the roots of this team. That is defense and starting pitching.
In the early part of the year that was the trio of Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly. That has re-emerged. Now the Cubs are seeing strong starts from Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks. Jameson Taillon has flashed dominant stuff at times and his start this weekend was very promising. The bullpen has cooled off, but the starting has been strong, been avoiding the kinds of disasters that burnout a bullpen and those guys down in the pen are not throwing seemingly every day anymore.
A new week and a new challenge. We’ll get into that before we leave, but for now I’ll just say take what we got and keep the energy moving forward. This team is very much alive, very much dangerous and there is a lot to play for. You can’t call a game or a series or a game must win in an extremely long season, but the team won a game on Sunday that they really needed, they booked four wins on the homestand and they stayed well positioned. It’s not what it could have been, but it is definitely a win.
Let’s identify three stars in another Cubs victory.
- Dansby Swanson had a three-hit game that included a homer. He drove in two and scored one. With the homer, he gives the Cubs five players who have hit 20 plus homers this year. They still have a chance to add two more. They should end up with two more at 10. They don’t have a 40-homer type. But they do have a diverse group that can beat you with a homer.
- Christopher Morel had one of those days at the plate where he showed you the dynamic things he is capable of. He got the Cubs offense started with a triple and then he hit the first of three homers in the third inning.
- Kyle Hendricks pitched into the sixth and allowed only two runs while picking up a win. As noted above, the kind of start that doesn’t pressure the bullpen. The pen needed to record 10 outs and the quartet of Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr., Hayden Wesneski and Jose Cuas faced 13 batters and recorded those 10 to nail down the win.
A hat tip here to Merryweather for notching his first save as a Cub. Relievers are so fickle you try to refrain your enthusiasm. The pitcher that has emerged this season in his first year to the Cubs can be dominant. Certainly, it isn’t lost on me that his walks per nine innings has matched a career high. But his strikeouts per nine has exploded to a new career high. Pairing that with keeping the ball in the ballpark, he’s produced best career results. He does have an unusually high strand rate, but xERA and xFIP suggest his numbers are no mirage.
Game 144, September 10: Cubs 5, Diamondbacks 2 (77-67)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Christopher Morel (.168). 2-4, HR, 3B, RBI, 2 R, K
- Hero: Kyle Hendricks (.123). 5⅔ IP, 24 batters, 7 H, BB, 2 R, 4 K (W 6-7)
- Sidekick: Dansby Swanson (.082). 3-4, HR, 2 RBI, R
- Billy Goat: Nico Hoerner (-.075). 1-4, 2 R, 2 SB
- Goat: Jeimer Candelario (-.035). 0-2, K
- Kid: Ian Happ (-.033). 0-4
WPA Play of the Game: With runners at first and second with no outs, Kyle Hendricks faced Geraldo Perdomo. The Cubs led by three in the fifth, but the Diamondbacks were threatening to put up a crooked number. Perdomo hit a short pop fly to left field. Ian Happ made a terrific running, sliding catch and channeled some offensive skills, executing a pop up slide and coming up throwing to second catching Emmanuel Rivera in no man’s land to complete a nifty double play. (.130).
*Diamondbacks Play of the Game: Nico Hoerner batted with a runner on third and no outs in a scoreless first. He grounded to the pitcher and Christopher Morel was thrown out trying to score. The relatively unusual occurrence of both teams deriving their top WPA play on defense. (.088)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Julian Merryweather (IP, 4 batters, BB, 2 K, Sv)
Yesterday’s Winner: Justin Steele 66 of 68 votes (Superhero is 98-45)
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 +43
- Justin Steele +22
- Adbert Alzolay +18
- Ian Happ 17.5
- Marcus Stroman +12
- Dansby Swanson -12.5
- Patrick Wisdom -15
- Drew Smyly -17
- Trey Mancini -20.5
- Jameson Taillon -23
- Brewers lose
- Phillies lose
- Diamondbacks lose
- Marlins win
- Giants win third straight
- Reds win
That leaves the standings as such. The Brewers lead the Cubs by three in the division. The Phillies are two games ahead of the Cubs and hold the first Wild Card. The D-backs are two games behind the Cubs and hold the third Wild card. The Marlins trade the Snakes by just half a game for the final playoff spot. The Giants and Reds trail by 1½ with the Reds having played two more games and technically being behind. With only 17 games to play over the final 21 days, the Reds are going to do a larger than usual amount of their playoff chase watching other people and looking for help.
Heading into the final three weeks of the season, six teams continue to battle over three playoff spot, separated by 5½ games with between 17 and 20 games remaining. That includes four teams separated by 1½ games for the last playoff spot. That offsets only one division that even can flip over the last three weeks.
Looking forward, the Brewers host the Marlins to start the week. The Phillies host the Braves starting with a Monday doubleheader. The Diamondbacks visit the Mets. The Giants host the Guardians. The Reds go to Detroit. The Guardians are fading by the day, but the Tigers have won two straight and seven of 10. The Reds are the only one of the contenders not in action Monday.
Up Next: This late in the season, baseball can be very unpredictable. However, if the Cubs can take care of business against a Rockies team that holds the worst record in the NL (51-91) and is only 29-38 at home, they might have a chance to pick up a little ground. The Rockies have dropped four straight and eight of 10 They boast the second worst run differential in the majors.
The concern is that the Cubs will be playing their 12th, 13th and 14th games in 13 days in an odd ballpark. All of that said, the Cubs have a team perfectly suited to playing in Colorado. It’s easy to think of the long ball in a stadium that has consistently yielded as many or more homers than any stadium year in, year out. But, the stadium was also designed to try to keep the homers from reaching insane levels. One thing done in that regard was making it a very large park. In a park like that, having a number of guys who are good at putting the ball in play, often with authority, and an elite defense is a weapon.
This will certainly be the most unique challenge of the budding career of Jordan Wicks (3-0, 2.16, 16⅔ IP). The 2021 first-round pick of the Cubs will look to extend his club record by winning the first four games of his career.
If you are like me and remember Kyle Freeland as one of the best pitchers on the Rockies, recall that was actually all of the way back in 2018 when he was 17-7 with a 2.84 ERA in 202⅓ innings. He hasn’t had a winning record in any season since and hasn’t had an ERA under 4.00 in any season since. This season he is 6-14 with a 5.09 ERA in 146⅔ innings. Pitching half your games in Colorado has to be exhausting. Loyalty aside, you have to think Kyle dreams of some day not being a Rockie. He’s 2-3 with a 5.90 ERA over his last seven starts and 2-8 with a 5.77 ERA over his last 15. So the numbers are pretty consistently bad. But one really quick example. He faced the Diamondbacks in Arizona and held them to two runs over six innings in his last start. The start before that he allowed six runs in less than six innings of work. Granted, that start was against the Braves who are a nightmare for everyone.