Man, these Cubs truly are never out of a game, are they? Through the first six innings of Sunday’s game, they looked like a team that had no business beating the Nationals. All-World pitcher Jake Arrieta wasn’t at his sharpest, the infield defense was sloppy and the offense seemed lethargic, thrown off early in the game by a funky strike zone. The Cubs managed to generate only one run through six innings and were solidly in line for their first loss in seven games when Kris Bryant’s two-run double in the bottom of the seventh made it a brand new ballgame.
The game stretched into the 13th inning before Javier Baez put an end to it with a no-doubt home run to left-center field. The 4-3 victory was the Cubs’ longest game of the young season and their first walkoff. The Cubs own baseball’s best record at 24-6, and the 7-0 week against Pittsburgh and Washington showed the league just how scary good the Cubs can be.
Top Play (WPA): After both teams had gone all the way through their bullpens and both benches had been cleaned, Baez finally put an end to it in the 13th with a one-out walk-off home run off Blake Treinen (+0.424). That was made possible by the Cubs’ rally in the 7th inning. With a short bench and bullpen, Joe Maddon sent Trevor Cahill to the plate to lead off the bottom of the inning during what would be a three-inning relief appearance. Validating the “anyone, anytime” feeling these Cubs have had through the beginning of the season, Cahill singled up the middle to start a rally that would put the Cubs back in the game. A Dexter Fowler hit-by-pitch and Jason Heyward sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position. Kris Bryant cashed in with a solid two-run single (+0.227), tying the game and burying the memory of the team’s sloppy play through the first few innings.
Bottom Play (WPA): With one out in the top of the third, Bryce Harper was issued one of six walks he would take Sunday (more on that below). Ryan Zimmerman followed with a sharp ground ball behind third base that Kris Bryant couldn’t handle. As Bryant was trying to get a handle on the ball, Harper hustled around the bases and scored, sliding in before catcher Federowicz could apply a tag off the late throw (-0.135). The hit—ruled a double by the official scorer—gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead early in the game.
Key moment: Bryce Harper stepped to the plate seven times on Sunday and reached base seven times without putting a ball in play. Joe Maddon chose to be ultra-conservative against the current best hitter on the planet, walking him six times (thrice intentionally) to go with a hit-by-pitch. It was clear from the start of the series Thursday that the Cubs were going to be careful with Harper, but the extent of that philosophy wasn’t clear until the top of the 10th on Sunday, when Adam Warren intentionally walked Harper with runners on first and second to load the bases with two out. When the same situation came up in the 12th, Justin Grimm issued the free pass. Ryan Zimmerman failed to cash in on either bases-loaded situation, making the Cubs look smart for their ultra-conservative decision making. According to Elias, Harper was the first player to ever reach base seven times without an official at-bat in a major league game. He’s pretty good, folks.
Trend to watch: Jake Arrieta’s five-inning start may be a distant memory by now, but he wasn’t at his best Sunday. For a fourth straight game, he didn’t appear to have his best stuff in the first inning. He threw 20 pitches to five batters in the first inning today, including a (probably smart) walk of Harper. In his previous two first innings, he faced five batters against Pittsburgh and eight against Milwaukee, walking two in each of those innings. Four starts ago, he did begin his no-hitter with a 1-2-3 inning against the Reds, but even he acknowledged he didn’t feel sharp in the early going.
Most of the time, Arrieta has been able to escape, settle in and get a W. He never seemed to totally settle in Sunday, and while a five-inning, three-run performance is nothing to whine about, it’s probably a good bet that Arrieta may take a look at how he can adjust to come out of the gates faster in the future. (And yes, you know the Cubs are spoiling their fans when we spend time picking nits in Arrieta’s early season performances.)
Coming next: The Cubs are slated to begin the second series of the long homestand against the San Diego Padres, who are sitting in last place in the NL West at 13-18. Looking at the Chicago forecast tomorrow, a rainout isn’t out of the question. If the game does happen, it’ll be interesting to see what lineup and bullpen choices Joe Maddon makes after Sunday’s marathon game
Jon Lester (1.58 ERA/3.58 DRA/91 cFIP), who has yet to allow more than three runs in a start this year, will take the mound. He’ll try to stay hot against an offense solidly in the bottom third of baseball in its per-game runs output (3.65 runs per game). Rookie Cesar Vargas (1.10 ERA/5.33 DRA/117 cFIP) will make his fourth start for San Diego. Vargas is seeking his first big-league win despite allowing only two runs over 16 ⅓ innings pitched. First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. on CSN.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.