In any MLB season, a team should count on losing a dozen or so games in which they clearly outplayed their opponents. It’s just the way baseball works. It’s a game of thin margins of victory and wide error bars. The Cubs are much better than the Mets, and they played somewhat better than the Mets played on Thursday night. They just lost.
Top Play (WPA): The contest couldn’t have started much more promisingly than it did. Damaged (though not entirely broken, at least not yet) Mets starter Steven Matz walked leadoff hitter Ben Zobrist, and then (after getting a couple whiffs in the strike zone to get ahead of Kris Bryant 1-2) missed badly with what was supposed to be an elevated fastball. The pitch came in at 94 miles per hour, but it was low and in and Bryant got a long look at it, and it went out at 103 miles per hour for a two-run homer. Javier Baez added another two-strike homer in the sixth inning, and it looked like the Cubs might cruise to a win. But Yoenis Cespedes cracked a mammoth home run to pull the Mets back to within two in the bottom of the sixth, and after the furious, foible-filled rally that was the bottom of the seventh, they held a 4-3 lead going to the top of the ninth inning.
Miguel Montero pinch-hit and drew a walk against Mets closer Jeurys Familia. Then, Ben Zobrist reminded the Cubs and their fans why he was so high on the front office’s wish list this winter: he rakes against relievers. Pitchers need multiple plate appearances against Zobrist to figure him out, whereas the dynamic is almost exactly the opposite for 99 percent of all batters. The long fly ball Zobrist hit to right field could have been caught, but uneven rookie Brandon Nimmo misjudged his second drive of the night, and it became a clean double (+0.349 WPA). Pinch-runner Travis Wood nearly tried to score on the play, but threw on the brakes at the last moment. In hindsight, maybe he ought to have pushed the envelope, but as it stood, the Cubs suddenly had an excellent chance of coming back to tie the game—maybe even take the lead.
Bottom Play (WPA); The game went one way for the first six and a half innings and the final two innings, and another way in the bottom of the seventh. Reticent to trust Justin Grimm or Trevor Cahill, or else simply hoping he had a new club in his bullpen bag, Joe Maddon called upon Joel Peralta when a Travis d’Arnaud single brought the tying run to the plate. John Lackey pitched a great game, recording 19 outs with an aggressive approach, good defense behind him, and some lively movement on his two-seam fastball. Lifting him was the right decision, though. It was Maddon’s choice to trust Peralta over Cahill (or even Travis Wood, since the left-handed Alejandro De Aza was the obvious option with the pitcher’s spot coming up) that raised eyebrows.
It didn’t take long for those raised brows to furrow into concerned glares. Peralta walked De Aza, then gave up a screaming RBI single to Nimmo. An ill-advised attempt to cut down De Aza at third base allowed Nimmo to take second on the play, too, so with the tying run on third and no double play available to them, the Cubs had to bring the infield in.
On came Pedro Strop, who got weak contact from Neil Walker, a chopper the bounced over Strop’s head and fell into the glove of the charging second baseman, Baez. The tying run was coming home—no stopping that—but Baez’s momentum was carrying him toward third base as he fielded the ball, so he decided to try to get Nimmo there, rather than spinning and throwing to first base.
His decision was debatable, but his execution was the problem. His throw sailed wide of Bryant, who was trying to set up to receive the throw at third base even as he reached the bag, and bounced down the left-field line. Nimmo scored right behind De Aza, and the Mets had the narrow advantage they would not relinquish (-0.292 WPA). Baez is always looking for the extra base, the extra out, or the higher-value out. It’s what he was doing when he fielded a grounder last September in Pittsburgh and fired to the plate from medium-depth shortstop, nailing a runner (Pedro Florimon) who had to be surprised there was even a play on him. It’s what he was doing Monday night, when he ran into an out in the top of the ninth as the Cubs added some insurance against the Reds. He’s a skilled enough fielder and a sufficiently stunning athlete to pull it off more often than not, and it’s become his trademark.
On this play, his sin was not feeling the rhythm of the action as it unfolded. Bryant wasn’t really positioned well to move toward a ball thrown anywhere but right to him. Baez’s throw, to be on time, had to be a bit off-balance. He could more easily have taken the out at first base and preserved the tie, and as he gains experience, he’ll probably learn when (and when not) to press the issue that way. In the meantime, he’s going to cost the Cubs key runs sometimes. It’s one argument (overwhelmed, perhaps, by the good arguments against it) for fixed lineup and defensive deployment. Playing a bunch of third base and a bunch of shortstop hasn’t prepared Baez for plays quite like that one, the timing and motion of which were both fairly unique to second base. Inexperience does hurt sometimes, though the Cubs will happily accept the small costs for the dual benefit of both gaining experience and exposure, and getting some special performances even as their young players learn.
Key Moment: The game had another chance to turn wildly after Zobrist’s double, but Jeurys Familia found his groove and the Cubs had no answer for him. Bryant struck out with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position and no outs. Familia walked Anthony Rizzo intentionally, preferring to set up the double play and attack Willson Contreras, a right-hitting rookie, than mess with Rizzo. Contreras, too, struck out, and then Baez popped up a mistake pitch to end the threat and the game. Throughout the at-bats during which he had so little margin for error, Familia simply found his command, reared back and threw his best pitch, his signature, over and over again—a high-90s sinker diving down and in to right-handed batters. Bryant hung in a bit, but couldn’t lay off the pitch even as he saw it multiple times. Contreras was badly fooled by it, perhaps having never seen quite so nasty an offering. He checked three swings, two unsuccessfully, and was not close to making good contact against the pitch. Baez was a little more on it, but missed when it counted.
This is no fault of Bryant, Contreras, or Baez. Again, Contreras might well have just been introduced to the best pitch he’s ever faced, and he faced it four straight times. When a pitcher like Familia finds solid command of their best pitch like that, a three-batter stretch is not long enough to hope for anything. The combination of movement and velocity on those sinkers overwhelmed some good Chicago hitters. Even so, they came within a single swing of taking the lead.
Trend to Watch: Bullpen usage will be the big story coming out of this game. It’s not merely that Maddon used Peralta as his first option in a sticky spot in the seventh, but that he went immediately to Strop two batters later. In such a high-leverage situation, it’s correct—almost brilliant, in fact—to bring Strop in, but it’s not clear that Maddon did it because he appreciated the gravity of the situation. To the contrary, it seemed like Strop was going to enter after Peralta no matter what. Maddon didn’t bring in Trevor Cahill until the bottom of the eighth, after the lead had been given away. Cahill is a solid secondary set-up arm, though, and probably still deserves to be above Peralta in Maddon’s bullpen hierarchy. The story of the Cubs’ bullpen—who is trustworthy and who isn’t, how Maddon is using them and might use them in the future, who might be coming in to reinforce the unit—will take up this space often over the next month. The trade deadline feels so far away. There are so many bad rumors between here and there.
What’s Next: Jason Hammel gets the next shot at the somewhat hapless, almost helpless Mets lineup. He’s shown signs of exactly the faltering durability that headed the list of legitimate concerns about the Cubs’ rotation coming into the season. He only struck out 20 of the 125 batters he faced in June, after fanning 50 of 226 opponents over his first 10 starts. Yet, he’s avoided walks, and held his own against some tough opponents. Jacob deGrom takes the mound for the Mets, and has done a reverse Hammel so far this season, getting stronger with each passing week. The game starts at 6:10 PM CT, on WGN for Chicagoans and MLB Network for Chicagoans at heart.
Lead photo courtesy Brad Penner—USA Today Sports