Top Play (WPA): Although the Cubs didn’t score in the first, the way they attacked Max Scherzer set the tone for the afternoon. Scherzer threw 25 pitches in the first without surrendering a hit, allowing a walk to Jason Heyward and a few long at-bats that ended in strikeouts. Even though John Lackey struggled early, spotting the Nationals two runs in the first two innings, the Cubs’ offense appeared to be in control of the game.
And so they were. Ben Zobrist walked to lead off the inning, and Tommy La Stella jumped on a first-pitch fastball, up and out over the plate, sending it over Bryce Harper’s head and five rows into the right-field bleachers (+.181). It was the first of four home runs from the Cubs on the warm, sunny afternoon, tying Scherzer’s career high in home runs allowed in a game. The Cubs have made some ace pitchers look silly this season, and there’s no sign that they’ll stop soon.
Bottom Play (WPA): The narrative that has coalesced around the Cubs so far this season has centered on the club’s outrageous run differential—currently at +97, or more than the second- and third-ranked clubs combined. Lackey contributed to that growing number by tossing seven solid innings of two-run, 11-strikout ball (including the 2,000th K of his career), but early on he wasn’t hitting his spots.
The second batter of the game, Anthony Rendon, teed off on a Lackey fastball that ran too far to the inside half of the plate, a solo home run ahead of the dangerous Harper (-.105). Luckily, he heeded my advice:
has lackey tried pitching good instead of bad
— the baseball dank (@BeersNTrumpets) May 6, 2016
Lackey settled down and suppressed the Nationals’ power from then on, an important and difficult feat on a day when Wrigley Field experienced quite a bit of air traffic.
Key Moment: Replay reviews are long and boring. They’re slightly less so when your team is the beneficiary of a review. In the third, Anthony Rizzo yanked a Scherzer offering high in the air to right field, hugging the foul line the entire way, eventually catching the Ryne Sandberg flag fluttering atop the foul pole. The call on the field was a home run, but the umpires and review office in New York spent four minutes watching the play and trying to determine its ultimate position as it passed the pole. The call was confirmed—resulting in a minor secondary celebration from Rizzo in the dugout—and game hero Ben Zobrist sauntered to the plate.
The Eureka, Illinois native took Scherzer to a 1-1 count before Scherzer went to his changeup. The Nationals’ righty left the pitch over the heart of the plate, however, and Zobrist put a solid stroke on the ball, a no-doubt home run to right. The back-to-back homers put the Cubs up 4-2, a lead they would not relinquish on the afternoon.
Trend to Watch: Matt Trueblood discussed Jorge Soler’s dwindling playing time in yesterday’s recap (and Cubs Twitter was teeming with Soler opinions all day on Friday), and the odds are that the dearth of starts he receives will continue to be a story. He got a pinch-hit appearance late in the game, striking out looking on a ball off the inside corner.
More importantly, however, is the Cubs’ starters’ Houdini act of late. All five starters have all baffled hitters early on, perhaps unsustainably so. Baseball Prospectus just released their 2016 Deserved Run Average numbers, and Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks all have marks north of four, likely a combination of their catchers’ ability to frame well and their luck in getting outs on balls in play. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester have track records that indicate a degree of sustainable success in that realm; the other three pitchers on the staff might be seeing some regression soon. It’s something to keep an eye on, in conjunction with their game plans and mechanics, as the calendar gets deeper into May.
Coming Next: The Cubs have taken five in a row against the Pirates and the Nationals, two of the best teams in the National League. They look to make it six on Saturday, and lock a series win against Washington, with Jason Hammel (1.24 ERA, 113 cFIP, 4.56 DRA) squaring off against lefty Gio Gonzalez (1.15, 95, 4.09). Hammel has succeeded by keeping hits and home runs to a minimum, allowing only 0.3 home runs per nine innings thus far, a key factor in opponents’ low .220 TAv.
Addison Russell will presumably be back in the lineup at short on Saturday, and Tommy La Stella might see the bench due to a lefty starter. It’s probably the best chance for a Soler start in the series. Either way, Ben Zobrist will try to continue his three-game home run streak, this time from the right side of the plate, and the Cubs will seek to get back to the triple-digit run differential that was so fleeting on Friday. The late afternoon game begins at 3:05, locally on Comcast Sports Net, nationally on Fox Sports 1.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports