MLB: Chicago Cubs at Cincinnati Reds

Game 159 Recap: Cubs 5 Reds 3

Top Play (WPA): Austin Jackson drove in five runs Wednesday, and so what did he do in his second plate appearance Thursday? Nothing relevant to yesterday, because what happened yesterday has very little to do with what happened today and any attempt to suggest otherwise would just be building a false narrative. He homered (+0.270)! The blast, his first as a Cub, traveled about six rows into the left-field bleachers and put the Cubs up 3-0 in the third inning. Chris Coghlan and Addison Russell scored on the play, and the Cubs—with the exception of some seventh-inning shenanigans during which the Reds scored three times—never looked back in sweeping the Reds in three straight.

Bottom Play (WPA): There was a moment, though, where things might have gone very differently. In that bottom half of that same third inning, Cubs starter Jason Hammel, who pitched in and out of trouble all day, allowed a one-out double to Reds’ starter John Lamb, then followed that up with a single allowed to Jason Bourgeois that–one wild pitch later—put runners on second and third with the heart of the Reds’ order coming up. That’s when things turned around. Hammel managed to strike Joey Votto out swinging (-0.079), which is a very rare feat this season, then retired Brandon Phillips on a flyout to right (-0.058) that Jackson just barely got to in right field. It was that kind of day for Hammel, who also had the benefit of a generous inside corner from home plate umpire Bill Miller.

Key Moment: This wasn’t a game with a lot of key moments, save Trevor Cahill’s strikeout of Jay Bruce to end the seventh: the Cubs are a good team, the Reds are a bad team, and the Cubs won. Sometimes it’s just that simple. But it was helpful that Hammel managed to work around a first-inning double by Bourgeois, retiring Votto on a flyout and Phillips and Jay Bruce on strikeouts. On a day when there was rain falling throughout the early innings, and both teams were eager to get to the team bus and off the 54-degree field, you never want to fall behind early. Hammel’s stuff wasn’t perfect today, but it got the job done. And, of course, Cahill’s strikeout in the seventh was pretty important too, and ended an ugly inning for the Cubs.

Trend to Watch: The Cubs’ leadership—Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and others—will sit down on Monday to hammer out the particulars of the playoff roster. Although Jason Hammel likely won’t be on the Wild Card roster (the ‘second starter’ spot will go to Jon Lester), he’ll probably make the NLDS roster as a third or fourth starter, paired with Kyle Hendricks. The real question for the brain trust, then, will be this: how many long relievers should the Cubs carry in addition to Hammel and Hendricks? On a 25-man roster, four of the 12 pitcher spots will go to Arrieta, Lester, Hammel, and Hendricks. Four more will go to Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Travis Wood.

But how about those last four? Clayton Richard, Neil Ramirez, Cahill, Tommy Hunter, Carl Edwards, Jr., Zac Rosscup, and Fernando Rodney will all be competing for just four positions. A start like Hammel’s today—in which he went five innings and gave up zero runs, despite some lingering difficulty—might convince Epstein & Co. that they can afford to ditch a long reliever, say, Cahill, and go with an extra weapon like Edwards, Jr. out of the ‘pen. But if they don’t trust Hammel and Hendricks to go a reasonable number of innings, they’ll have to carry both Richard and Cahill, severely limiting the non-Rondon, non-Strop ‘pen weapons.

Coming Next: The Cubs will head 400 miles northwest to the Brew City for their final series of the regular season, and the man they’ll put on the mound on Friday—Jake Arrieta—will be the story. Arrieta’s had a transformational season, posting a 53 DRA- and 7.28 WARP over 223 brilliant innings pitched. With a scoreless, injury-free start—of whatever length—he’ll position himself well for both the NL Cy Young Balloting (where he’s locked in a tight race with Los Angeles’ Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw) and for the Wild Card game next Wednesday (where he’ll face Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole).

His team, meanwhile, will be seeking its 95th win of the season, and the opportunity to keep its slim hopes of a home-field Wild Card game alive. Milwaukee, which is limping to the end of a fourth-place season, will counter with right-hander Ariel Pena. Pena, a 26-year-old Dominican native, has put up reasonable numbers (104 cFIP, 90 DRA-) in the 23 innings he’s pitched since making his big-league debut on September 5th. The Cubs will do their best to give him a short day on the mound as they make their final tuneups before playoff baseball gets underway.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.

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