Top Play (WPA): This one was never in doubt. The Cubs have an opportunity to gain ground on both Pittburgh and St. Louis this week, and the Cubs’ 9-0 victory over their arch rivals is a good start to a key series.
The game’s top two plays both came from the Cubs’ sparkplug, Dexter Fowler. He led off the game with a line-drive homer to right off of Cardinals’ starter Lance Lynn, who lasted only 2 1/3 innings (+.107). Fowler followed that with a double to left over the outstretched glove of Stephen Piscotty, who took a wandering route to the ball (+.183). That double scored both Starlin Castro and Addison Russell, putting the Cubs up 3-0 in the second.
Bottom Play (WPA): As is common with some blowouts, the game’s bottom play, in terms of leverage, came from the winning team.
In the first, Kris Bryant walked to the plate with runners on first and second and one out. Lynn jammed Bryant, who hit a humpback liner over Matt Carpenter’s head, which the Cardinals second baseman made a nice running catch on with his back to the field. Carpenter then fired to second to double off Chris Coghlan, who went the aggressive route when he had to make a difficult read on the play (-.075).
Key Moment: The Cubs’ back end of the rotation has faltered in the second half, failing to get deep into games and generally performing poorly. Some of this problem is alleviated by September callups beefing up the bullpen, but Joe Maddon has to be hoping for better starts from his 3-5 guys down the stretch run. Luckily, Dan Haren showed up in a big way against the team for which he made his MLB debut. Haren tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up seven hits and two walks while striking out five.
In a game mostly sealed since the early innings, I think there were two key moments that allowed for Maddon to save his bullpen for the rest of this key series. Haren was able to coax double plays to end both the fifth and sixth innings, the first a slick Russell-Castro turn to nail Pete Kozma and Piscotty, the second an unusual 5-6-3 with Kris Bryant shifted to short right field. Those two plays kept Haren’s pitch count down, allowing him to go deeper into the game and turn it over to Carl Edwards, Jr., making his MLB debut.
Trend to Watch: After a very poor start to the season, Fowler has been nothing short of great since the beginning of July. In the last 30 days, Fowler is 14th in the majors in fWAR (for what it’s worth), with a .305/.417/.611 line. He’s also managed a career-high 17 home runs, and he sports a .287 Total Average on the season, which would be his second-highest of his career. There’s no doubt that Fowler is one of the largest factors in the Cubs’ surge to the fourth-best record in the majors.
There’s been some chatter lately about Fowler’s remarkable second half possibly pricing him out of the Cubs’ 2016 plans, considering his age (29) and the Cubs’ other outfield options, especially with the addition of natural center fielder Austin Jackson. While he won’t get anywhere near the money that fellow free agent Jason Heyward will get, Fowler could see a contract in the four-year, $75-million range. The Cubs will likely extend him a qualifying offer, hoping to keep him for at least one more of his prime years while they work to develop outfield talent in the minors, but Fowler’s status could be the biggest story of the early offseason should he continue to produce at such a high level.
Coming Next: After a Reds victory over the Pirates, the Cubs sit a mere two games back of Pittsburgh for the Wild Card lead. The Pirates are 4-10 against the Reds this season, so the Cubs have a great opportunity to shrink that lead. Jason Hammel (4.10 DRA/3.55 ERA/89 cFIP) will duel with Cards’ ace Michael Wacha (3.34/2.69/94). As I detailed last week, Hammel is again facing down some second-half struggles rooted in an inflated home-run rate, preventing him from reaching the six-inning mark all but twice in his last 11 starts. Wacha, like the rest of the Cardinals’ staff, boasts a very high 78 percent left-on-base percentage, one reason his cFIP (a predictive stat) likes him less than his ERA.
Kyle Schwarber, who Sahadev Sharma recently profiled, most likely won’t see time in this series, but with Addison Russell’s 13th home run in this game, and Cubs’ rookies (Bryant, Schwarber, Russell, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler) have an incredible 57 combined home runs.
Lead photo courtesy of Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports