Oh, how they needed that.
Top Play (WPA): With Dexter Fowler injured, “You go, we go,” has become a more fitting slogan for the Cubs’ opponents, who have persisted lately in hammering Cubs pitching almost immediately after the Cubs’ batters put runs on the board. Such was the case again in today’s cat-and-mouse game. Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Addison Russell hit a single each in the first for a 2-0 Cubs lead, but the Pirates came back in the second with three runs of their own, one of which was yet another Sean Rodriguez home run. The Cubs kept pushing, tying it up on a Contreras ground out which scored Kris Bryant, but Pittsburg pushed back in the bottom of the same frame with Andrew McCutchen’s solo homer. At least when Albert Almora hit a two-run, go-ahead home run in the fourth, the Cubs were able to maintain the lead for three whole innings before the Pirates evened it up again on McCutchen’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly.
Bryant, who has been a first-half hero in so many ways, got to have the last laugh today. The National League home run leader got it done with a line drive single to left to score Matt Szczur in the eighth (+0.280), and this time, the lead was good enough to stick.
Bottom Play (WPA): The aforementioned McCutchen home run (-0.128). McCutchen has looked distinctly un-Cutch-like this season, slashing .238/.312/.401 coming into this series, but he’s apparently woken up against the Cubs, achieving consecutive multi-hit games on Friday and Saturday for the first time since May 24th and 25th and racking up seven RBI this series. Today’s third-inning homer against starter John Lackey was yet another point in the recent trend of Cubs pitchers falling victim to the long ball.
Key Moment: Immediately following McCutchen’s homer, Lackey retired David Freese, Rodriguez, and Adam Frazier in order, and it proved a sort of turning point, as much as one can say so in a game that featured altogether too many turning points for the Cubs’ liking. Lackey followed this up with his first 1-2-3 inning of the day, and while it wasn’t a quality start (the Cubs have had none of those in July), it was one that lasted into the seventh inning. With Joe Maddon relying heavily on Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, and especially Travis Wood, who has made 44 appearances this year, minimizing the bullpen presence mattered. Pirates starter Jon Niese, meanwhile, was chased from the game after pitching 3 2/3.
Trend to Watch: There isn’t an area of play where the Cubs haven’t struggled lately. The offense has luckily begun to pick up again (Jason Heyward in particular is making a lot more solid contact), but the defense, too, has shown cracks (including a couple of questionable judgment calls by Javy Baez today), and certainly all eyes have been on the Cubs’ pitchers. Zack Moser recently broke down the loss of movement and mechanical lapses we’ve been seeing in Jake Arrieta, and the question here—as it is for the team as a whole—is just how much of this slide is fatigue-related. That answer needs to be discovered quickly following the All-Star break, as it will certainly factor into the front office’s decisions leading up to the July 31 deadline.
Up Next: Four days with no Cubs baseball is a very, very good thing. This team (staggering, limping, desperately clawing, etc.) has made it to the end of the “first half,” having completed a grueling 24 games in 24 days. They’re 9-15 in that stretch, with only two of those wins coming in the month of July, so it’s an understatement to say that they need some rest. Arrieta, Jon Lester, Rizzo, Bryant, Zobrist, Russell, and Fowler will travel to San Diego for the All-Star Game (Fowler will not participate), while the rest of their teammates, hopefully, do absolutely nothing next to their chosen body of water. Regular play next resumes Friday with a series at home against the Rangers. Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, and John Lackey will take the mound against Texas, giving Arrieta and Lester a few extra days.
Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game will be broadcast on FOX this Tuesday at 7:00pm CST.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports