Not often does a laugher turn into a nailbiter as quickly as it did on Tuesday night. The Cubs had five-run leads twice in this game; twice, though, the Padres’ lineup removed their sheep’s clothing and revealed their, well, not-quite wolf-ish hitting, but something more than their “hitless wonder” reputation suggests. Luckily, the Cubs have Hector Rondon.
Top Play (WPA): In the third, the Cubs’ bats exploded, as they are wont to do. The top of the order came to bat for the second time against rookie Cesar Vargas, and it was apparent that they had sized him up. Dexter Fowler led off with a single, and Jason Heyward followed with a single struck hard to left, beating the shifted infield. Kris Bryant worked a 2-1 count, and pounced on a Vargas fastball, belt-high and over the plate, roping the ball over third baseman Brett Wallace’s head and toward the corner. Fowler scored easily from second, and Heyward glided around third as Melvin Upton barehanded the ball in left and fired home.
But it was too late. Heyward, who has had plenty of opportunities lately to show off his aesthetically perfect baserunning, galloped across the plate to high-five Fowler, and Bryant had himself a two-run double (+.125). They piled on, too. Ben Zobrist (4-for-4 on the night) continued his recent hitting torrent with an RBI single, Javier Baez buggywhipped a liner to left and took second on Upton’s throw to third, and David Ross capped the inning with a deep sacrifice fly to right. The Cubs scored four to take a 5-0 lead, an important cushion considering Jon Lester’s quickly rising pitch count.
Bottom Play (WPA): Although Lester didn’t allow a hit until Upton’s home run in the fourth, he didn’t quite look sharp, generating few of the groundballs that are key to his success. In the fifth, the Padres got to the lefty. Joe Maddon had to delve into his bullpen a little earlier than he perhaps would have liked, using five relievers to get six outs in the seventh and eighth.
After a tight seventh detailed below, Justin Grimm allowed a walk and two singles, getting only one strikeout, and forcing Maddon to bring in Adam Warren with the bases loaded. Warren struck out Adam Rosales swinging, and 25-year-old rookie Alex Dickerson stepped in to hit with two outs.
The Cubs’ righty quickly found himself ahead 0-2, and it looked like the Cubs would squeak by another late inning unscathed. But maybe with Hector Rondon’s minuscule save total in mind, Warren served up a meaty pitch to Dickerson, who walloped a grand slam—his first career homer—to right field and jerked the Padres within one run (-.126).
Key Moment: If there has been a weakness on the 2016 Cubs so far, it’s been their fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-best relievers. Which is to say, they don’t really have any weaknesses so far. Those ‘pen guys acquitted themselves well on Tuesday. Trevor Cahill entered the game in relief of Lester and sandwiched a pair of strikeouts around a walk, turning the ball over to former Padre Clayton Richard. The second-best lefty named Clayton in the majors failed to record his one out, surrendering a base hit to Jay. Maddon smelled smoke, and called upon Pedro Strop to put out the fire.
A slight hiccup by Baez at third—his first error on the season—loaded the bases, but Strop finished the inning on a Kemp flyout, securing the Cubs’ lead into the seventh-inning stretch. The Padres don’t have a lineup full of world beaters, but Myers and Kemp still flash signs of their unique talents, but they threatened to score many more times than they succeeded in this one. Getting to the back end of the bullpen with the lead intact was imperative with the impending doubleheader on Wednesday, and Maddon didn’t hesitate to go with one of his best relievers to escape the jam. The club will need longer outings from Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey tomorrow.
Trend to Watch: The bats and arms get the headlines and accolades, but the Cubs’ legs have turned the tide in several key innings over this long winning streak. Tonight, there were several examples. Heyward hustle to score from first on Bryant’s double. Baez taking second on Upton’s throw, is a prime example of his top-shelf baseball intelligence, and it keept pressure on the scuffling Vargas and took away the possibility of a double play with the bottom of the order coming up. Of the Cubs’ 21 players with baserunning stats this season at Baseball Prospectus, 17 are positive or neutral in Baserunning Runs. Individual numbers will come back down to earth—David Ross isn’t the second-best baserunner on the team (sorry Grandpa Rossy)—but the numbers are a symptom of the Cubs’ good team baserunning.
Last season, the Cubs were second in the majors in both swings with a runner on the move and balls in play with the runner on the move. Maddon likes to hit and run, and he won’t hesitate to do so, even with this lineup. When slumps come, those tactics and the players’ baserunning aptitude will be magnified. Running the bases will never be the hallmark of this team, and it won’t be what pundits point to when identifying this team’s strengths, but it’s an important complement to their prolific hitting that will extend innings and leads.
Coming Next: Day baseball! And night baseball! It’s a split doubleheader on Wednesday, making up for Tuesday’s rainout. Kyle Hendricks (3.10 ERA, 103 cFIP, 4.45 DRA) takes the ball in the first game, facing off with Colin Rea (3.82, 111, 5.10). Rea danced late into the evening with a no-hitter last week, losing it in the seventh inning, but he’ll face a challenge in this Cubs lineup.
The Cubs were poised to call up a position player as their extra man in the doubleheader, but Maddon and the front office might have changed their minds after using six relievers in this game. The team’s versatility and depth will receive a nice showcase, so look forward to seeing some players in their secondary positions. The Cubs go for their ninth (and maybe tenth!) win in a row, a feat they accomplished last August during 2015’s hottest stretch.
“Oh yes they call it a streak / eight wins in over a week. / If there’s time left in the game / as long as there ain’t no rain / havoc the Cubs gonna wreak…”*
*Apologies to Ray Stevens.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports