On a sunny, cold, and windy day at Wrigley, the Cubs and Nationals played a tight, back-and-forth, and crazy ball game. Things have been going the Cubs’ way recently, and it continued this afternoon, as they were able to come from behind three separate times to beat the Nationals. As Len Kasper said in the seventh inning, this team is “something else.” Let’s recap:
Top Play (WPA): Ryan Kalish had his moment today. Down 4-3 with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning, Joe Maddon went to Kalish to hit in the pitcher’s spot against righty Blake Treinen. Despite the threat of righties Javier Baez and David Ross coming off the Cubs’ bench, Dusty Baker decided to bring on lefty Sammy Solis to face Kalish, and Maddon made the somewhat surprising decision to stick with the outfielder. It (barely) paid off. On a 2-2 count, Kalish inside-outed a blooper (62 MPH off the bat) just past the reach of the diving Danny Espinosa at shortstop, scoring Addison Russell and Jorge Soler (both of whom had had big singles in the inning) (+0.316).
There was a lot of luck involved in the play itself, but it is no coincidence that Kalish was in the box to begin with. Since coming up as a fairly well-regarded prospect with the Red Sox in 2010, Kalish has suffered a rash of unavoidable injuries, putting his major league future very much in doubt. He took last year off and worked hard to get back into shape, so it’s very cool to see him getting another chance in the big leagues.
Bottom Play (WPA): After Kalish’s clutch hit, Ben Revere led off the top of the seventh with a triple into the right-field corner against Travis Wood (-0.184). Adam Warren came on and did an excellent job limiting the damage, striking out Espinosa, and—after intentionally walking Bryce Harper—inducing a ground ball to Ryan Zimmerman. Tommy La Stella fired it to Ben Zobrist at second, who got it to Anthony Rizzo at first quickly as he could, but the throw was just late, and Revere was able to score and tie the game at 5.
Two other WPA blows came earlier in the game, against starter Jason Hammel. Hammel has been clearly excellent this year, but he was just as clearly due some regression. Opponents had been hitting .074 against him with runners in scoring position so far this year, and this was a trend that just wasn’t going to last. He pitched fairly well through five innings to my eye, but several poorly-timed seeing-eye singles got through the infield in the fifth inning. With two outs, Espinosa singled to knock in Jose Lobaton (who got on with a leadoff walk) on a grounder that just got under a sliding Ben Zobrist’s glove (-0.129). This single tied the game at two, and then, after a walk to Harper, Zimmerman would ground a single up the middle to score Espinosa and give the Nats a 3-2 lead (-0.156).
Hammel finished the day with four walks, three strikeouts, and three runs on four (mostly soft contact) hits in five innings of work.
Key Moment: There were many key moments in this one, but the biggest came in the bottom of the seventh. In a tie game with (again) the bases loaded and two outs, Russell lofted a fly ball down the right field line. Harper moved toward it, clearly conscious of the wall, and the ball glanced off his glove directly (to my eye) above the foul line. It was ruled a fair ball, and Russell had a two-run double (+0.283). To my eye, it looked like the ball probably would have landed foul, but there was no way that the umpires could have overturned it with the replays available. After that, the Cubs were able to tack on another in the eighth, and then Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon slammed the door.
There were several other key moments worth mentioning in this one. Even though the wind was blowing in from left at 23 MPH, Kris Bryant was able to power a home run 423 feet into the left-field bleachers in the third inning, which is notable mostly for the insane power that it must have taken.
The Cubs were down 4-2 in the sixth inning, and the Nationals had Stephen Drew on third with only one out. Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals’ starter on the afternoon, laid down a safety squeeze at the feet of catcher Tim Federowicz. Federowicz pounced on it and fired to third, where Drew had wandered off the base into no-man’s land. Bryant was able to tag him (after a few throws), and then fire to second, where the Cubs caught Gonzalez trying to sneak into scoring position. This classic 2-5-2-5-4 double play got the Cubs out of a jam, and kept it close enough for the later heroics to matter.
Trend to Watch: The Cubs only struck out six times today in 40 total plate appearances. After being last in the leauge with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate last year, the Cubs have improved to an above-average contact team this year, with a strikeout rate of only 19.4 percent coming into today’s game. This is partially due to the additions of players like Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, but it’s also due to players like Addison Russell (20.4 percent so far, 28.5 percent in 2015) and Kris Bryant (22.2 percent so far, 30.6 percent in 2015) taking big steps forward on putting the ball in play. Combine this with a league-best 13 percent (13 percent!!) walk rate, and the Cubs clearly have been the team with the most professional approach to hitting in the early going.
Coming Next: The Cubs appear to have a good chance of sweeping tomorrow, when Jake Arrieta will take the mound at Wrigley in the series finale. Arrieta has been stunningly good—even for him—in the early going, posting a 0.84 ERA and .148 TAv against through his first six starts. Some of his early peripherals suggest regression, though: his DRA is 3.94, and his cFIP is 97—only three percent better than average. Much of this is driven by a .176 BABIP against, the excellent receiving skills of the Cubs’ catchers, and a K/9 rate (7.7) that is diminished from last year. For me, the answer to Arrieta’s performance almost certainly lies somewhere in between his early results and peripherals. He is getting lucky to some extent, but to another extent, he has simply been elite at producing weak contact. Even somewhere in the middle is an absolute stud, though, and we shouldn’t expect anything different tomorrow.
Tanner Roark (2.35 ERA/4.33 DRA/107 cFIP) will start for the Nationals against Arrieta. Look for the Cubs to load up on lefties—they hit with a .277 TAv against Roark to only a .235 TAv for righties. It’ll be another sunny at Wrigley for a Mother’s Day matinee; first pitch is at 1:20 Central.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports