The Cubs are a very, very good team, and playing a pretty bad team like the Angels to open the season highlighted that nicely.
Top Play (WPA): By the time Anthony Rizzo stepped in against Andrew Heaney in the top of the third inning, the Cubs had already put two runs on the board. It was a long inning for the young starter, and if the frame had gone no further, it would still have been a profitable one for the Cubs. Rizzo was patient, though, getting ahead 2-0. Then, he launched a low fastball into orbit. The Cubs homered four times in this short two-game series, and hit several balls to the warning track, too, but this was by far the best highlight of the set. It left Rizzo’s bat at 106 miles per hour, flew over Mike Trout’s head, and landed in the batters’ eye in center field, some 422 feet away. The two-run blast (+0.144 WPA) set the tone for a game that would never again be in doubt.
Bottom Play (WPA): There were no big missed opportunities in this one, nor any terribly tense moments. After the four-run Cubs third, the Angels never got north of 17.0-percent win expectancy for the rest of the game. The only run they managed against Jon Lester came in the sixth inning, when Lester’s command showed its first sign of slippage. Johnny Giavotella led off with a groundout, but it came in a three-ball count: only one Angel had gotten that far against Lester prior to that. Then Yunel Escobar cracked a first-pitch double down the right-field line (though he was very nearly erased on a good throw by Jason Heyward), and Craig Gentry drove him in with a line-drive single to left field on a 3-2 count (-.051 WPA). With Mike Trout due next, things could have gotten ugly, and Lester did let that count go full, too, but he eventually got Trout to ground to shortstop, and then retired Albert Pujols to escape the inning.
Key Moment: There was another juncture of the game at which the Angels almost got to Lester. It came in the bottom of the third inning, when one-out singles by the eighth and ninth hitters in Anaheim’s lineup forced Lester to consider the specter of facing Trout with the tying run on base. He almost had to do it, too. Ben Zobrist didn’t field an Escobar groundball cleanly, and when he finally fed Addison Russell at second base, Russell flubbed the transfer from glove to hand. Fortunately for both fielders, the second-base umpire, Will Little, ruled that Russell had possessed the ball with his foot on the bag, and so Giavotella was ruled out. The Angels elected not to review the play, and while I’m unsure if it would have been overturned (in fact, I suspect it wouldn’t have been), I can’t imagine why they didn’t press the issue. There was a lot at stake, and they were unlikely to be faced with a more valuable opportunity to challenge. This is something at which the Cubs excelled last year, but which several other teams (the Angels seemingly included) still need to figure out: it’s almost always worth a challenge.
As things stood, with runners now at the corners and two outs, Lester had only to get Craig Gentry out to avoid facing Trout. After inducing another groundball to Zobrist, he did so. The Angels never got as good a look at the Cubs’ tail lights again. Not to pile on with Scioscia, but let’s point out the obvious: Gentry has no business batting second in the big leagues, even against a lefty. Trout should be that guy for the Angels, with Pujols third, Kole Calhoun fourth, et cetera. But while the Angels could have made that sequence harder on him, credit Lester with remaining composed and showing excellent command throughout the inning. He kept getting ground balls, and that turned out to be all he needed.
Trend to Watch: Facing a lefty starter, Joe Maddon played Matt Szczur over Kyle Schwarber in left field. Szczur responded with two hits (including a home run to open the scoring), solid defensive work, and good contact even on one of his outs. Still, you shouldn’t expect to see him starting much from now on. If this game had been played in an NL park, Jorge Soler would have been the left fielder, instead of the DH. If the Cubs can get even typical backup-level production from Szczur and David Ross (two hits of his own, including a double), though, opponents are going to run out of ways to stop this offense. The two right-handed defensive specialists combined for 262 plate appearances and an OPS around .550 last season. If they can just beat that by even 50 points this year, Cubs fans will be happy.
Coming Next: A day off Wednesday will give the Cubs ample time to travel back to Arizona, where they’ll see another mediocre Western contender. Four games at homer-happy Chase Field this weekend await any hitters frustrated that the marine layer sapped some of their power, and for the (many) Cubs fans who wrung their hands incessantly last year about the lack of a clear third starter, Thursday is the dawn of a bright new day. John Lackey will take the ball in his Cubs debut, facing the hard-throwing (but ultimately limited) right-hander Rubby De La Rosa. If that name sounds familiar to you, it could be for one of two reasons:
- You can recite the particulars of the August 2012 Red Sox-Dodgers blockbuster involving Adrian Gonzalez from memory.
- He gave up this.
It’s more likely to be the second one. Game time is 8:40 Central, and you can find it on CSN+.
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports