This was fun. Let’s get to it.
Top Play (WPA): “When you go, we go.” That’s what manager Joe Maddon said to Dexter Fowler before every one of his at-bats during the 2015 season, and it is (presumably) what he said to him today, shortly before Fowler began the Cubs’ 2016 campaign with a sharp double down the right-field line at Angel Stadium. Jason Heyward, making his debut in Cubbie blue, moved Fowler over to third with a ground ball to the left side, which meant (after Ben Zobrist, also in his debut, struck out) that Anthony Rizzo came to the dish with a chance to plate the Cubs’ first run of the season. The Cubs’ approach in the first inning was to jump on Angels’ starter Garrett Richards early in the count (that changed later, but we’ll get to that), and so it was on a 1-1 pitch that Rizzo grounded a fastball up the middle to score Fowler (+0.097) and put the Cubs on top early. They wouldn’t look back, and they defeated the Angels for their first win of 2016.
Bottom Play (WPA): The exciting inning in this game—the fourth, which we’ll discuss shortly—was just a glimmer in Chicago’s brilliant future when Addison Russell led off the third with a six-pitch walk (“0-2 to 3-2,” if you’re keeping track of such things, which you should be). Fowler, by this time well on his way to a three-hit, one-walk night, moved him up to second with a clean single, and set the Cubs up to add on to their one-run lead. But then two bad things happened, both relating to the newest Chicago Cubs. First, Heyward struck out on four pitches. Second—and more damningly, because it’s exactly what he was hired not to do—Ben Zobrist rolled over on a pitch to the right side, allowing the Angels to turn a double play and end the threat (-0.081). All in all, it wasn’t a great debut for Zobrist, who singled in the fifth and in the ninth but looked shaky overall. He struck out on a number of other occasions, and got picked off first base by Carlos Perez to boot (to be fair to Zobrist, it was a sensational throw).
Key Moment: Can a moment be a whole inning? I’m gonna go ahead and say it can be, and I’m the one writing this recap, so you’ll just have to go along with it. Here’s how the Cubs’ half of the fourth inning played out:
- Rizzo (Walk, five pitches)
- Bryant (Walk, seven pitches)
- Schwarber (Groundout to advance the runners, seven pitches)
- Soler (Single, two pitches)
- Montero (Single, nine pitches)
- Russell (Strikeout, six pitches)
- Fowler (Strikeout, five pitches)
41 pitches. Two runs. One very frustrated Garrett Richards. This is the kind of inning you want to see from the Cubs a lot this year, if you want them to live up to their offensive potential. The Chicago lineup has made a practice, in recent years, of waiting for pitches it can drive and ignoring the rest; this inning put that approach on dramatic display. But don’t confuse the results for the process: walks—which the Cubs took many of throughout the night, and two of in this inning—are the byproduct, not the goal, of this team’s professional attitude at the plate. Homers, too, will come if hitters wait for their pitch to drive. And so will runs. They did tonight.
Trend to Watch: It’s not a secret that Jake Arrieta was extremely good last year. It’s not even a secret that he was pretty darn good the year before that, too. The question really is this: how will he be this year? He threw an awful lot of innings in 2015, and admitted soon after the season ended that by the end of the year he was gassed. So, despite his remarkable training and physique, his performance this year is a bit of an open question until he proves that it shouldn’t be. Well, tonight he looked good, throwing 72 percent of his 89 pitches for strikes—a higher percentage than any game he threw last year. The beginning of the game was a little shaky—he wasn’t quite hitting his spots, and lucked into a few rockets right at fielders—but by the middle innings he was generating weak contact and striking out batters with changeups down in the zone like the best of them. On that note: his changeup looked especially good tonight. Keep an eye on his mechanics: if he’s repeating, everything will probably be fine.
Coming Next: The Cubs will look to move to 2-0 on the year tomorrow in the series finale (yes, we’re writing about series finales already) against the Angels, who’ll throw former-Marlin, former-Dodger Andrew Heaney up against the Cubs’ second ace, Jon Lester. Lester will look to build on a strong debut season for the Cubs, in which he threw 205.0 innings, struck out 207 batters, and posted a 3.94 DRA across 32 starts. After allowing 15 runs in just 21 2/3 April innings last year, Lester will likely take particular pleasure in a strong performance tomorrow night, if it indeed arrives. Heaney, for his part, will try to make 2016 the year in which he finally sticks in the big leagues all season, though he’ll have a tough time doing it against the Cubs’ “righty” lineup, which they’ll likely run out against the lefty Heaney. Gametime is 9:05 pm CT, and the game will be broadcast on CSN+ in the Chicago area.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports.