MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

Game 148 Recap: Cubs 5 Cardinals 4

Top Play (WPA): The Cubs’ lead came early in this one, and—were it not for some dramatics in the ninth inning—it would have brought with it the lede story of the day. The second batter of the game, Jorge Soler, managed to work a walk off of Cardinals’ starter Michael Wacha, and Kris Bryant promptly sent him home with a scorching double into the left-field corner. It was only the beginning of the day’s heroics for Bryant, as it turned out, but for now I only need note that that double put the Cubs up 1-0. They’d tack on another run in the frame, courtesy of a Starlin Castro single (scoring Bryant), and left the inning with two runs and a bead on Wacha. From that point on, the game progessed as they usually do, and the Cubs entered the ninth inning leading 5-1.

That was when things started to go poorly for Chicago. Hector Rondon hit Greg Garcia to lead off the ninth and, given that the beaning came on the heels of two more to Kolten Wong, Rondon and manager Joe Maddon were tossed from the game. Matt Carpenter followed Garcia with a home run off of Zac Rosscup to cut the deficit to two. Singles by Tommy Pham (+0.72) and Jason Heyward (+0.154) put runners on the corners with nobody out, which was enough for Davey Martinez to bring Pedro Strop in to get the final three outs.

Bottom Play (WPA): Strop performed admirably, striking out Jhonny Peralta looking (-0.125), retiring Yadier Molina on a sacrifice fly to right-center that cut the St. Louis deficit to one, and then getting Stephen Piscotty to ground a ball up the middle. And this, folks, is a play you’ll see over and over again. In postgame comments, Maddon said he thought that Piscotty’s ball was a base hit off the bat. It sure looked that way, but Addison Russell had other plans. The young shortstop, who’d entered the game just a few batters previously, made another one of his tremendous plays, picking up his teammate and ending the game in the process. After the game, other Cubs stars were quick to heap praise on Russell. “Just make a play,” said Anthony Rizzo. “That’s what you always say after a pitching change.” And Russell did. His quick flip to second after the miraculous snag retired Molina on the force-out and ended the game. It’s hard not to be impressed with these Cubs’ ability, night after night, to come in off the bench or out of the bullpen and perform exactly as needed. Strop and Russell did it in this one, and there’s no telling who’ll do it tomorrow. For now, watch Russell do something spectacular:

Key Moment: Before the ninth inning, the main story of this game was going to be the bullpen’s performance. Maddon had deemed it a bullpen day from the start (Travis Wood’s), and with the heart of the Cardinals’ order due up with two outs in the third inning, Maddon elected to move on from Wood and hand the ball to Trevor Cahill, who was fresh off strong performances in Philadelphia (three perfect innings) and Pittsburgh (two scoreless). Sure enough, Cahill retired the final batter of the third inning—Peralta—and then cruised through the fourth, before getting into a little trouble in the fifth.

Wacha led off the frame with a single and was swiftly moved to second by Carpenter, who contributed a single of his own. That left runners on first and second with nobody out in a one-run game. At that point, Cahill got to work. He abandoned the sinker that had gotten him into trouble with Wacha and Carpenter and moved to a combination of his fastball and his changeup—the former to set up the latter. Apparently helpless against this new arsenal, Pham flew out to right (-0.080), Heyward struck out swinging (-0.065), and Peralta followed Heyward to the dugout with another whiff (-0.061). The inning never got out of hand, and it was entirely due to Cahill’s pitching.

What happened next, though, was entirely thanks to the offense. I hadn’t quite returned to my seat when Soler led off the bottom of the inning with a first-pitch homer off of Wacha, putting the Cubs up 3-1. Bryant followed immediately with an absolute blast into the left-field bleachers, extending the lead to two, and the Cubs never looked back. This is an offense that can beat you a lot of different ways, including off the bench, but this game wasn’t really about that. It was about the bullpen stepping up, and the Cubs’ big boys doing what they do best: hitting baseballs a really long way.

Trend to Watch: Speaking of hitting baseballs a really long way, Bryant is on it right now. Since August 2nd—a six-week span that comprises 180 plate appearances—Bryant is hitting .333/.400/.605, with 15 walks and 10 home runs. He added a walk and two hits, one of them a home run, to that total on Saturday, and never once looked uncomfortable in the box. (Not incidentally, he looked excellent on defense as well, and commented after the game that he was “really proud” of the improvements he’s made there throughout the season.) Part of his success might be all the time he’s had to think things over while driving his Lyft around, but part of it might also be that he’s managed to make it past his first real challenge as a big-league hitter. After seeing initial failure throwing hard stuff to Bryant, pitchers learned to throw to Bryant soft and away, and for a few weeks there he had some trouble laying off those offerings. He’s learned to do that now, and that’s forced pitchers back into the zone where he, well, he does this:

Another trend to watch, unfortunately, is hit by pitches. After the fireworks Friday night, Saturday’s game featured three HBPs, all by Cubs pitchers. As I mentioned above, Wong was hit twice, once by Cahill and once by Fernando Rodney, and Garcia was hit by Rondon with one out in the ninth. To my eye, none of the pitches looked intentional (and after Maddon’s postgame comments yesterday, I’d be shocked if they were), but it certainly doesn’t look good, and won’t be taken well in the Cardinals clubhouse. Maddon acknowledged as much in his postgame comments, saying that he expected “Cardinal Nation” to disbelieve his every word. As it stands, I believe him completely.

Coming Next: On Sunday afternoon, the Cubs will look to sweep the series behind co-ace Jon Lester (83 cFIP, 89 DRA-), who’s coming off perhaps his best start of the season. In Pittsburgh last Wednesday, Lester took the mound in the second game of a doubleheader and threw a gem: nine innings, five hits, one earned run, and nine strikeouts. The Cubs haven’t lost since. That said, they’ll face stiff opposition Sunday in Carlos Martinez (91, 102) and a Cardinals team with their backs against the wall. Although Martinez has been a bit shaky lately, posting a 4.56 ERA over his last nine starts, dating back to July 30th, his last outing—on September 15th, against the Brewers—may have been what he needed to turn things around: eight innings, one earned run, two walks, and nine strikeouts. Martinez does have a 100-point OPS platoon split, so expect to see a lefty-heavy lineup out there Sunday. After finishing up against St. Louis, the Cubs will welcome Milwaukee to town for three straight night games. Jimmy Nelson (108, 91), who was hit in the head by a Tommy Pham line drive last week, was slated to start the middle game (and recently told ESPN that he wants to make the start), but that won’t happen now, and the Brewers will go with a bullpen day. Wily Peralta (124, 136) will start the opener, and Zach Davies (116, 107) takes the finale.

Lead photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports images.

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