I’m not saying the Cubs are going to win 110 or more games. All I’m saying is that the way to win 110 or more games is to sometimes get one when you’re a long way from full strength and the opposing starter is on top of his game and you’re sending your fifth guy coming off a long layoff and your best hitter gets thrown out of the game in the third inning because the umpire’s strike zone (while accurate) makes a frustratingly nice companion for that opposing starter’s command. Those elite teams win games like this one.
Top Play (WPA): The Nationals didn’t come terribly close to scoring against Kyle Hendricks through six strong innings. Hendricks kept the ball down, got 10 outs in the dirt, and allowed just five baserunners—two hits, an accidental but harmless plunking of Danny Espinosa, and two appropriately cautious walks to Bryce Harper. The Cubs got through the seventh cleanly, thanks to Joe Maddon’s election to start the frame with Clayton Richard (for one batter, fellow lefty Daniel Murphy) and finish it with Justin Grimm.
In the top of the eighth, though, things got a bit hairy. Pedro Strop had the kind of night to which he is occasionally prone, struggling to find the strike zone. He missed badly with both the fastball and the slider, hitting Espinosa to lead off the frame, then walking Clint Robinson. With Michael Taylor at the plate as the go-ahead run, Strop briefly continued to look lost, bouncing a slider that so lacked even the spin he wanted that Tim Federowicz had to play the ball off his left ribcage. That was a heroic block, and given what came next, might be the Top Play in a way WPA can’t capture. Strop recovered to fan Taylor (an outcome to which Taylor is very, very prone, and an unfortunate turn for Washington that underscores Dusty Baker’s ongoing failure in putting the young center fielder at the top of his lineups) (Hey, does Dusty Baker putting a young center fielder with huge strikeout and OBP problems at the top of the order sound familiar to anyone?), and then, miraculously, rediscovered his form. Anthony Rendon took a strike, then bounced into a double play (+0.147 WPA) that threw the crowd into a frenzy, drew an Anthony Rizzo fist pump, and unlocked a relief-fueled burst of manful jubilation from Strop.
Bottom Play (WPA): No need to dig too deep here. The worst play for the Cubs in the game was the walk Robinson drew, right before Strop got his groove back (-0.107 WPA). It was a nail-biting moment, and all. It just isn’t for you, right now, because you just read about how it turned out.
Key Moment: Obviously, the game turned in the eighth, mostly during the above sequence. For the sake of a little color, though, consider the bottom of the seventh, too, and then the bottom of the eighth. In the seventh, the Cubs had two men on and two outs, with left-hander Sammy Solis trying to keep the Nationals’ deficit at 2-0. Due up for the Cubs was the leadoff spot, where switch-hitting, world-beating Dexter Fowler has spent almost the entire season. Fowler had been thrown out, though, after arguing a called third strike at the end of the third inning. Instead of having the platoon advantage and (arguably, right now) their second-best hitter at the plate, then, the Cubs had to send up Jason Heyward, who had taken Fowler’s place in center. Heyward struggles against left-handers in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times for him. He’s off to a poor start, and his wrist is sore. He wasn’t supposed to play Thursday night. Heyward popped out to shortstop, keeping the game close enough to make the top of the eighth stressful for Strop and Maddon.
Flash forward to the bottom of the eighth, though. There, a two-out, two-run home run by Ben Zobrist (who had also driven in the first two runs, with a bases-loaded fourth-inning single) broke the game open for good. Zobrist is one of relatively few hitters who have always done better the first time he sees pitchers than subsequent times. He entered Thursday with an .801 career OPS against relievers, and a mark just south of .900 since the start of 2015. Last year’s Cubs struggled against relief pitchers, especially those with big stuff, and Zobrist continues to be a part of reversing that trend in 2016.
Trend to Watch: Let’s talk lineup. There was considerable consternation when the Cubs put out their lineup Thursday afternoon, as Jorge Soler failed to appear. Instead, Ryan Kalish started in left field, with Kris Bryant in right field and Tommy La Stella at third base. That became part of an ongoing conversation many are having about whether Soler is getting a fair chance to fight his way out of his struggles at the plate, and about what his future ought to be.
Let’s be clear: Soler wasn’t benched in this contest, or yesterday in Pittsburgh. The Cubs faced fastball-and-slider dependent right-handed pitchers in both contests (Juan Nicasio Wednesday, Joe Ross Thursday night), and Soler struggles with pitch recognition against righties. Against Ross, in particular, whose slider was nasty and effective Thursday night, he would have been overmatched. It doesn’t help Soler or the Cubs to send him out there to fall deeper into bad habits and make outs against pitchers for whom he is a poor matchup.
Some pointed out that Javier Baez started in Soler’s place, more or less, on Wednesday, whereas Kalish got the call on Thursday night. That has been taken as evidence that Maddon simply doesn’t want to play Soler. I don’t see it that way. Rather, I think it was more important to get extra left-handed bats into the lineup against Ross than it was to get them in against Nicasio, whose looser command allowed the Cubs’ right-handed batters to do just fine against him.
I would expect to see Soler in the lineup Saturday, when Gio Gonzalez pitches for Washington. It’s a fair bet, though, that righty-shredding Max Scherzer will draw roughly the same lineup Maddon fielded Thursday, perhaps with Heyward in as a starter instead of Kalish. Cubs fans need not worry about Soler, not least because even if he busts altogether, it doesn’t look like the Cubs will miss him all that much.
What’s Next: Max Scherzer (eyes two different colors, obviously a cyborg) pitches for the Nationals Friday afternoon, against John Lackey (well-known zombie and public menace) and the Cubs. We don’t know who will win the 1:20 matchup. All we know is that, with both pitchers free to hit the town Friday night, no one is safe.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports