It’s a beautiful day for a ball game, in the sense that really any day when it isn’t raining is such a day. In a stricter sense, it’s a pretty miserable day for a ball game, and yet, this was just the first of two.
Top Play (WPA): With neither starter pitching well early, the bottom of the fourth found the score tied 2-2. Javier Baez led off the frame, and after working a 2-2 count, he fouled off three straight tough pitches from Colin Rea. Rea, reaching deep into his bag of tricks, then tried a splitter. It’s not a pitch he throws often, especially to right-handed batters, because he struggles to control it, and specifically, tends to lose it to the arm side. That happened in a particularly acute and scary way on this occasion, as the ball rode up and hit Baez high on the left biceps.
That brought up Addison Russell, who’s fast becoming one of the best young players in baseball. He’s a very good defensive shortstop and a patient, pesky hitter, but the key adjustment that has transformed him into a major offensive weapon this year is an ability to drive the ball to right field. Rea worked him low and away, and Russell watched the first two offerings go by for balls. Rea then had to come into the zone a bit, and although the next pitch was still at the knees on the outer half of the plate, Russell was ready for it, and he mashed it. Into the right-field corner went the ball, bringing Baez around to untie the game (+0.148 WPA), and putting Russell into position to score easily on Tim Federowicz’s double. The Cubs didn’t make the most of their opportunities, in that inning or in the fifth, but Russell can’t be blamed in either case.
Bottom Play (WPA): Padro Strop flat-out didn’t have it. It happens to him occasionally, though the frequency of those games seems to be dropping all the time. He threw his second pitch somewhere over or behind Wil Myers, letting Travis Jankowski take second base. Strop was missing to the arm side with both his fastball and his slider, and was lucky, really, that Myers took a 3-1 fastball on the inside corner and grounded it toward the hole between shortstop and third base. Baez dove and snagged the ball, but his throw got by Anthony Rizzo on a long hop, allowing Jankowski to score and pushing Myers to second. Then Strop walked Matt Kemp. After a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio, Strop seemed to find the range a bit, getting ahead of Brett Wallace 1-2. He was a strike from escaping practically unscathed, the lead narrowed to 4-3 but ultimately intact.
Wallace, though, was sitting and waiting. He’s a left-hander who struggles mightily on anything inside. It’s what killed his former top prospect hype, and turned him into the journeyman the Padres are trying to turn back into a useful big-leaguer. Having seen Strop consistently leave his slider on the third-base side of home plate, Wallace looked for that pitch, got it, and lofted a fly ball into the bleachers in left-center field (-0.516 WPA). The lead was gone for good. Strop wouldn’t record an out in his nightmarish outing, and is sure to be unavailable for the nightcap.
Key Moment: The top of the first inning started badly for Kyle Hendricks, then got worse. His usually sterling command was missing, leading to a leadoff walk by Travis Jankowski. Perhaps acting on a scouting report about Hendricks’s pickoff move, Jankowski immediately took a liberal—no, a downright libertarian, an unconcerned, unbounded, unapologetic cliff dive—lead. Hendricks tried to chase him back twice, caught him leaning each time, and still didn’t come all that close to getting him. With a huge head start and good jump, Jankowski took off on a 1-0 pitch to Wil Myers and stole second. (Tim Federowicz made a whale of a throw to make it close, despite a pitch that dipped way low for Ball 2, but Jankowski got in when Ben Zobrist couldn’t handle the short hop.)
As messy a situation as Hendricks was in, it looked poised to turn itself around when Myers hit a 2-2 pitch right to Javier Baez at third base. Baez looked Jankowski back to second, then fired across the diamond, but his throw sailed high and got out of play, allowing Jankowski to score and Myers to reach second. Aside from pushing across the Padres’ first run, that set up the second, which Matt Kemp drove home with a single to center field. Just three batters into the game, the Cubs trailed by two runs. Hendricks was masterful for much of the rest of his outing, but this slow start not only put the Cubs in an early hole, but ran up the pitch count of the pitcher the Cubs protect most aggressively from high pitch-count outings. That forced Hendricks out in the seventh inning, though he had two outs and only the tying run coming to the plate. That would prove to be an unfortunate thing.
Trend to Watch: After the Cubs put runners on second and third with one out in the fifth frame, the Padres walked Russell intentionally, preferring to take their chances with Federowicz and Hendricks. In similar situations against the Nationals over the weekend, Joe Maddon went to his bench, pinch-hitting Tommy La Stella for Federowicz in consecutive games, and once backing that up by pinch-hitting for Jake Arrieta with Ryan Kalish. On Wednesday afternoon, Maddon allowed both his catcher and his pitcher to bat for themselves, leading to no runs.
The difference-maker might have been the schedule, more than the opponent or the score. That was a good chance to go for the jugular and make the game a laugher, but with another game left to play Wednesday, other considerations took priority. The Chicago bullpen gave Maddon four innings Saturday, eight innings Sunday, and a tough three on Tuesday night. The presence of 26th man Carl Edwards, Jr. might have allowed Maddon to get away with going to the bullpen early, but doing so would also have meant asking David Ross to catch part of the game, and even with Miguel Montero’s return to the team imminent, the Cubs don’t want to task Ross with that kind of burden.
This is a trend to watch, because it’s something you’ll see more of in weeks to come. It will often take different forms, even the opposite of this form, as the team strives to make sure all of their starters are fresh well into October. It will happen, though, because the start the Cubs have put together permits them to do it—even demands that they do. This team will make the playoffs, and when they do, they’ll want as much of their roster intact and in peak form as possible. As crazy as it sounds, it’s not too early to start trading a few percentage points of Win Expectancy for a bit of extra rest and good roster management.
What’s Next: The same two teams will play the second half of the twin bill at 7:05, with John Lackey facing off against Drew Pomeranz. You can read more about both pitchers in the series preview we published Monday. The contest will be on CSN Chicago. The good news: it isn’t expected to get colder or drearier as the afternoon gives way to evening. The even better news: Lackey has been extremely pitch-efficient so far this season, and should be able to work deep into the contest, sparing the bullpen. The bad news: the best the Cubs can do is a split of the doubleheader. The past, man. It’s obdurate.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports