The Cubs played an extra-inning matinee under grey Chicago skies on Sunday, closing out a rain-shortened two-game set against the Braves. The main news going into today’s game was Kris Bryant’s return from a brief hiatus due to an ankle sprain. He was sporting a brace in the game, but given the Cubs’ depth, one has to think he’s totally fine; with only two of Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Jorge Soler, and Javy Baez fitting into the lineup most games, there was not much to be gained and potentially a lot to be lost by rushing Bryant back. He looked a bit rusty at the plate, striking out in his first three plate appearances, but it’s good to know he’s fundamentally healthy.
Top Play: The Cubs bats were quiet most of the day, stymied by a great performance by Julio Teheran (7.0 IP, 9K, 1BB, 2H), and Chicago fell into a three-run deficit in the sixth. But an eighth inning rally would cut the deficit to one, and it remained that way into the bottom of the ninth. Ben Zobrist led off, and did what he does so well, working a walk on five pitches, before Tommy La Stella struck out. With only a runner on first and two outs to go, things were looking grim for the home team. Atlanta reliever Arodys Vizcaino was justifiably worried about Zobrist stealing second, so before pitching to Addison Russell, he threw over to first. Then he did it again, and Jon Lester’s whispered hex from the home dugout worked, with the ball skipping past Freddie Freeman’s glove and into foul territory and Zobrist getting all the way to third. With Vizcaino now fully focused on the plate appearance, Russell swung and missed at one low-and-away slider and watched a second go by for a called strike, before driving the third the other way for a single, scoring Zobrist and tying the game (+.225 WPA). Unfortunately, Tim Federowicz and Jorge Soler couldn’t make any more noise, and the Cubs went to the tenth. The fact that this is the top play, rather than any tie-breaking heroics, tells you all you need to know about how the Cubs did in that inning.
Bottom Play: Hector Rondon came in to pitch the top of the tenth for the Cubs, and after striking out Jace Peterson, he gave up two consecutive singles to Daniel Castro and Mallex Smith. The latter took the Braves from the slightest of favorites (win probability of 50.1%) to heavily advantaged (68.8%), a -.187 WPA swing for the Cubs. Without context, it looks like an innocuous play, but in the tenth inning of a tie game, that single felt as momentous as WPA thinks it was. Nick Markakis managed to put the ball in the air in the next at-bat, driving Castro home with a sacrifice fly and putting the Braves up 4-3.
Key Moment: As my colleague Matt Trueblood wrote a couple weeks ago, Joe Maddon has seemingly abandoned his preseason plan to keep the starters on a short leash. Instead, they’re frequently going deep into games and seeing opposing hitters three or four times as a result. That burnt Lackey last week against the Reds, when he gave up three singles, a walk, and a home run over the span of six batters, all of whom he had already faced twice. Today, Lackey again didn’t look dominating in the early going—he would strike out only two batters on the day, and walk three—but because he wasn’t throwing many pitches (only 60 through five innings), Joe Maddon gave him a lengthy leash, and it backfired yet again.
Already on his third time through the order in the sixth, Lackey opened the inning by giving up a single to Mallex Smith and walking Nick Markakis. After Erick Aybar bunted the runners to second and third, Freddie Freeman was intentionally walked, and the bases were loaded for Adonis Garcia. Lackey got two quick strikes, but Garcia didn’t chase multiple breaking balls in the dirt. On the sixth pitch of the plate appearance, Garcia hit a tailor-made double play ball to shortstop, and the inning seemed over. But the normally sure-handed Addison Russell was unable to come up with it, a run scored, and the bases remained loaded with one out. The Cubs win probability before the play was 23.0%, but a double play would’ve kept the score at 1-0 through five and a half innings and put the Cubs win probability at 40.4%. After Russell’s error, the Cubs win probability was at 14.2%, so it’s possible to view it as a whopping 26.2% blow to the Cubs’ chances.
It was a huge swing, and it impacted the next play as well. Ben Zobrist fielded a Kelly Johnson grounder, but rather than flipping the ball to Russell at shortstop, Zobrist tried to tag Garcia before throwing to first. Garcia avoided the tag, and while he would eventually be tagged out between first and second, by avoiding the force out he enabled another run to be scored on the play. If Russell had managed to get even one out on the preceding play, Zobrist’s throw to first would’ve ended the inning with only one run in. That run would obviously go on to play a huge role in this game.
Trend to Watch: Today was Tim Federowicz’s first start behind the plate, and offensively, it went about as expected, with the catcher failing to get on base in four plate appearancess. While the drop-off from Montero to Federowicz on that side of the ball is obvious—PECOTA projects Federowicz for a .243 TAv, versus a .262 for Montero—the defensive drop-off from either primary Chicago catcher is also quite steep. In 2015, David Ross was worth 9.2 runs per 6,000 framing opportunities, and Montero was worth 17.3, both quite good, while Federowicz, in limited time at AAA, was worth -2.4 runs. Lackey didn’t look particularly sharp today, and while the blame for that doesn’t belong solely to Federowicz, Cubs fans probably aren’t used to a below-average (and way below-Ross/Montero) receiver behind the plate. It’ll be interesting to see how Maddon splits the workload between Federowicz and the aging Ross, and what kind of impact that has on the pitching staff.
What’s Next: The Cubs head to the Steel City for a three-game set against the division-rival Pirates, off to a 15-10 start after an extra-inning loss to the Reds today. Two night games will be followed by a 12:35 EST/11:35 CST game on Wednesday, as the Pirates host an Education Day for local elementary and middle school students, so be awake and ready to learn.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports