Another day, another close loss. The Cubs could have won this one, but the fact that they didn’t isn’t especially galling. They just need to keep plugging.
Top Play (WPA): Superstardom seems forever right around the corner for Addison Russell, and it’s never felt closer than it did during this series. Russell came up with Tommy La Stella on first base in the second inning, and roped a line-drive double into the left field corner. La Stella should have been stopped by third-base coach Gary Jones, but he wasn’t, and Reds shortstop Zack Cozart failed to relay the ball to the plate as he received it from left fielder Jose Peraza, allowing La Stella to score, and tying the game at 1-1 (+0.130 WPA). Russell then got a great break on a weird, in-between liner by Miguel Montero, and when it bounced past Brandon Phillips into shallow right field, Russell scored the go-ahead run, too.
Strikeouts remain a surprisingly serious problem for Russell, who has great hands and wrists and will flash an above-average hit tool, but remains mostly a fastball hitter with a thirst for power right now. He’s patient, but he’s not yet able to hang with pitchers who can throw both breaking stuff and change ups for strikes. Still, he’s obviously a remarkable talent, and the power he’s displayed lately is a reminder of his huge ceiling. Since a day off in Atlanta that helped him shake off a slump last month, Russell has 91 plate appearances, 10 extra-base hits, and 13 walks (to go with 22 strikeouts). He could have a great second half, and as part of a healthier, better-rested Cubs lineup, could spearhead the coming turn back toward excellence for a team that won’t be held back like this for long.
Bottom Play (WPA): You can trace the fact that Trevor Cahill was on the mound in the top of the seventh inning back to Monday, when Joe Maddon used Pedro Strop (and Hector Rondon, for that matter) to wind down a blowout Cubs win. If Strop and Travis Wood hadn’t each pitched on both Monday and Tuesday, Cahill would not have had to pitch two innings to bridge the gap between Adam Warren’s strong five innings and the final few outs.
That’s not the primary problem that cropped up for the Cubs in the seventh inning, though. Cahill is a better and more trustworthy pitcher than Maddon has tended to believe, and two runners reached base on fairly weakly hit ground balls in that fateful seventh inning. Most pertinently, though, the ball Tucker Barnhart lofted into the bleachers in left field for a game-turning three-run homer wasn’t hit especially hard, at least as homers go. Jason Heyward had hit a ball similarly hard in the bottom of the sixth, though not quite as high, and with the wind blowing hardly at all. When Barnhart hit his ball, the wind was blowing, though not howling, and the 98-mile-per-hour fly ball simply carried too far, turning a two-run Cubs lead into the dreaded (of late) one-run deficit (-0.370 WPA)..
Key Moment: It came early on Wednesday. Zack Cozart was the first batter of the game, and put together a plate appearance no one was going to top all afternoon. Adam Warren looked good as he got started, pumping in two quick strikes, but then one of his bigger warts slowly showed up: he lacks a true out pitch. Cozart fouled off a couple tough pitches, worked from 0-2 to a full count, and then, on the 10th pitch he saw, drilled a long home run to give the Reds a 1-0 lead. As good an at-bat as it was, though, that wasn’t the key moment. The key moment was what happened next.
Warren recovered brilliantly. He set the rest of the Reds down in order in the first, keeping the rhythm of the game from rolling in the wrong direction, as it did on Tuesday and has so often during the rough few weeks through which the team continues to slog. The game wasn’t decided then, not by a long shot, but Warren’s composure and ability to bear down kept the Cubs in the game long enough for the offense to find at least a flicker of its old form.
Perhaps, in the same vein, it’s worth mentioning what happened in the top of the second. Eugenio Suarez led off the inning with a flyout, but Brandon Phillips then blooped a single, and stole second (with a huge jump) on Warren and Miguel Montero. Jose Peraza followed with another softly hit single, but Phillips was unable to score.
With runners on first and third, the Cubs paid even less attention to Peraza than they had paid to Phillips. With one out, they could have tried to keep the double play in order, but they preferred to focus on the eighth and ninth batters in the Reds’ order, who were due up. Peraza stole second without so much as a fielder moving to cover the bag, but Warren then struck out Tucker Barnhardt—in front of an infield that stayed back, playing for a second out and to prevent a two-run single, rather than to cut down a run on a ground ball. That was very encouraging. Too often this season, Joe Maddon has defaulted to strategies (like bringing his infield in, or issuing intentional walks) that lowered the likelihood of allowing a single run, but raised the chances of allowing several. Not bringing in the infield while trailing by a run in the second inning was an encouraging sign that the team is focused on keeping games under control, rather than on trying to be perfect. Of course, it helps that the gamble paid off. Warren got out of the inning unscathed.
Trend to Watch: It’s Warren, all the way. The four-pitch, multi-inning weapon the Cubs hoped they were adding to their bullpen (and perhaps, eventually, their rotation) when they dealt for Warren in December hasn’t yet materialized. Warren has battled inconsistent command, especially of his fastball, and fairly inconsistent usage, but after the Cozart at-bat on Wednesday, he looked not only comfortable, but revitalized. His stuff was sharp, and he controlled it brilliantly. He threw 93 pitches in five innings, but only 83 to the batters he faced after Cozart, and fanned six without issuing a walk.
What’s Next: The lowly Braves blow into town for an unlikely Thursday night getaway game, a makeup for the game rained out when they visited Chicago early in the season. At 7:05 CT, Jason Hammel will toe the rubber, trying to recover from his disastrous outing at Citi Field last Friday. This will be the first chance to see what benefit the starting rotation gets from the steps the team took to get them some extra rest. Former Astros ace Lucas Harrell will start for the Braves, because apparently, Lucas Harrell is still in pro baseball, and because the Braves have a thing for former Astros aces (but only the really bad ones).
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.