Top Play (WPA): With the Cardinals leading 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, Chris Coghlan rapped a leadoff single. After Anthony Rizzo walked on a full count, Mike Matheny opted for Jonathan Broxton to replace Kevin Siegrist. Broxton proceeded to walk Kris Bryant to load the bases for Tommy La Stella. La Stella—known for his patient approach—worked a five-pitch walk to force in a run (+.203). Broxton wasn’t particularly close to the zone:
With the free pass granted. the Cubs win-expectancy soared to 70.2 percent.
Bottom Play (WPA): Unfortunately for the Cubs, the next play represented a crushing blow to their chances. Matheny opted for Seth Maness in an effort to induce a ground ball off the bat of Addison Russell. Maness got behind 1-0 to Russell, and I thoroughly expected the young shortstop to take a pitch given the three walks preceding him. Russell did not take the pitch, instead hitting a medium-depth fly ball to Gold-Glover Jason Heyward in right field. Rizzo—representing the tying run—took off from third, getting cut down at the plate by Heyward (-.419):
With one swing, the Cubs win-expectancy slumped from 70.2 percent to 28.2 percent.
Key Moment: The Cards jumped on Jon Lester right away, taking advantage of pitches left up in the zone. Tommy Pham yanked a fastball onto Waveland to give the Cardinals a quick 1-0 lead in the first:
Stephen Piscotty came to the plate later in the inning with one on and two outs, blasting a hanger into the left field seats for a 3-0 Birds lead before the home team had even come to the plate.
After Matt Carpenter doubled to start the third, Lester came back to strikeout both Pham and Heyward. He then executed a beautiful sinker to Jhonny Peralta, but Peralta ripped an RBI-single nonetheless:
Unlike the first inning in which Lester surely wanted multiple pitches back, he just had to tip his cap to Peralta on this one. It would take six innings to discover, but this knock would ultimately prove to be the game-winner.
As they consistently have all year, the Cubs fought back. Down 4-0 in the third, Lester collected his third hit of the year to start a rally. Dexter Fowler and Coghlan walked, giving Rizzo a chance with two outs. Rizzo responded with a two-run infield-single, a play which Peralta would probably tell you he should have made.
After Starlin Castro led off the ninth with a sharp single, Quintin Berry pinch ran for him and attempted to steal second, but was thrown out by Tony Cruz who had replaced Yadier Molina in the eighth. Trevor Rosenthal then struck out Jorge Soler, and induced a weak ground out from Kyle Schwarber to end the game.
Trend to Watch: The Cubs bullpen had another nice day, with three scoreless innings in relief of Lester. Of particular note is Joe Maddon giving Neil Ramirez the critical eighth inning in a two-run game, and Ramirez responding beautifully with a perfect inning that included two strikeouts. Let’s take a look at his velocity chart today:
Much has been made of Ramirez’ diminished velocity since returning from a shoulder injury, but today he sat comfortably above 94 mph with his four-seamer, while he had been averaging just over 93 mph in previous outings:
One mph may not seem like a significant difference, but the noticeable uptick in velocity could be a huge sign for the once-dominant reliever. In 2014—when Ramirez was elite—his fastball sat above 95-mph virtually all year. If he can continue to build on today’s velocity gain, he could become a critical late-inning option for Maddon down the stretch.
Coming Next: With dreams of the Central Division put to bed with today’s loss, the Cubs now turn their attention to winning the first Wild Card spot. Can you imagine a one-game playoff in Wrigley Field with Jake Arrieta on the mound? With Pittsburgh winning today, the Cubs now sit two games back of the Bucs, who come to town next weekend for a three-game playoff preview. Before that can happen, the Cubs welcome their old rivals Milwaukee to town for a three-game series starting Monday at 7:05. Jason Hammel (3.73 ERA, 4.17 DRA) starts for the home team, facing Wily Peralta (4.41, 5.80) for the visiting Brew-Crew. Hammel looks to recover from a rough outing last Tuesday, in which he gave up four runs in just 3 2/3 innings to Pittsburgh.