We witnessed a near-perfect 2016 Cubs performance on Friday afternoon, beginning the ceremonial second-half with a bang against the AL-best Rangers. Good pitching, patient and timely hitting, savvy managing, and superb defense: this game was a good one on all fronts.
Top Play (WPA): Although the fireworks would come later, it was the Cubs’ half of the second inning that proved most impactful. After a Willson Contreras groundout to begin the inning, Addison Russell squared off against lefty Martín Pérez. Russell laced an 0-1 fastball into left field, one-hopping the wall before Ryan Rua gloved it, and Russell cruised into second with a double.
Jason Heyward then grounded to second, moving Russell to third as one of the Cubs’ best hitters versus lefties, Javier Baez, ambled to the plate. Baez, in 71 plate appearances, is rocking lefties at a .361/.451/.623 pace, and he came through again with a scorching single on a 3-2 count, plating Russell and giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead (+.100).
Bottom Play (WPA): The Cubs’ starting staff hobbled into the All-Star break, but Kyle Hendricks twirled a gem to set the rotation on the right track post-All-Star break. The righty used his changeup to great effect on Friday, stifling an impressive Rangers lineup for six innings.
The first inning presented the most trouble for Hendricks on the afternoon, after Rougned Odor sharply singled to lead off the game. Willson Contreras, perhaps not on the same page regarding signals with his battery mate, whiffed at a high four-seamer from Hendricks with AL MVP candidate Ian Desmond at the plate, and Odor took second. Desmond grounded to the right side, moving Odor to third with young slugger and AL Rookie of the Year candidate Nomar Mazara due up next.
Finding himself down 2-1 to the precocious Mazara, Hendricks dealt two consecutive changeups to get swings-and-misses from the lefty hitter, striking him out and placing the Rangers’ scoring chance in peril (-.058). The pitcher settled down after a walk to Adrian Beltre (with first base open) and induced a Prince Fielder groundout to end the inning and the threat.
Key Moment: Swirl your glass, sniff, and politely sip—ah, yes, a vintage with which Joe Maddon himself would be impressed. (I think that’s how wine works… don’t ask me, I am a heart Midwestern beer guzzler). The Cubs looked much like their April 2016 selves, muchmore than those Cubs of an injury-riddled June Swoon, due to a key sixth inning in which the team hit well and capitalized on some Rangers mistakes. Let’s take it blow by blow.
Kris Bryant teed off on Pérez to lead off the inning, singling to left center. Anthony Rizzo then skied an 0-1 offering deep to right, a home run on any other day, but which today—with the wind billowing in from center—caromed off the ivied brick for a double. Willson Contreras walked on five pitches to load the bases, and the table was set for a game-breaking inning.
Russell squared up another Pérez pitch for an RBI-single to center, scoring two. Heyward grounded to Prince Fielder, who received a rare start at first base with the Rangers in a National League ballpark. Fielder pumped the ball in his glove several times as he moved slowly toward a deking Contreras, who found himself about one-third of the way to home. As Contreras committed back to third, Fielder launched a throw into the stands, scoring the Cubs catcher and putting runners on second and third.
Baez and Albert Almora, Jr., made quick outs, forcing manager Maddon to make a decision: would he pinch-hit for Hendricks, considering the six shutout innings the right-hander had pitched?
Maddon made the correct procedural decision, and found favorable results, when he tapped lefty-mashing Matt Szczur to hit for Hendricks. Rangers manager Jeff Banister did not react to the situation as adroitly as Maddon, leaving his starter in the game. Szczur singled to center, two runs scored, and a still-thin Cubs lead became a yawning one, 6-0. Maddon has not always pulled his pitchers in similar situations this season, as Henry Druschel wrote about one month ago, but his tactics were appropriate for the scenario and paid off handsomely.
Trend to Watch: A bevy of defensive plays guarded the Cubs’ slim lead for most of the afternoon, and nearly every player on the field got in on the leathery action. The Cubs were poised to be a solid defensive unit coming into the season, but injuries have sculpted the defensive alignment into curious shapes in recent weeks.
In the third inning, with the Cubs up one, Odor again found himself on first after a fielder’s choice. He attempted a steal on Hendricks, who is slow to the plate, but underestimated the Cubs’ young catcher. Contreras popped from his crouch quickly and fired the ball to Baez at second, who lept and nimbly applied the tag to Odor’s leg. It was the first baserunner caught stealing with Hendricks on the mound this season.
Another young Cub, Almora, made a handful of good plays in center field on the afternoon, not the least of which was a jumping catch in the right-center gap. Almora might not have needed to leave his feet, but his reaction and first step were as quick as usual. Rizzo added a slick diving play on a grounder to his right, getting full extension to glove the ball, and tossing to Hendricks to get the out. Hendricks himself made a nice play, getting off the mound to his right on an Elvis Andrus dribbler, fielding cleanly, and wheeling to throw to first to get Andrus to end the fourth.
The biggest play occurred in the top of the eighth, with Travis Wood on the mound. Jurickson Profar and Nomar Mazara each singled, and found themselves on second and third with two outs after a wild pitch. The fearsome Beltre toed the box against Pedro Strop, relieving Wood, and topped a ball along the third-base line. Kris Bryant backhanded the ball, stepped, and threw across the diamond to Rizzo, who stretched toward the Rangers’ dugout to corral the ball and end the inning.
Even in the ninth, Baez fielded a ball that careened off of Rizzo and fired to first to get Fielder for the first out. The last play of the game was a line drive tattooed by Andrus, with Almora running headlong toward the centerfield wall and catching the ball as he slid in the rain. It was the capstone on a great defensive afternoon for the Cubs, who played well in all facets to beat a good Rangers club.
Coming Next: Yu Darvish (2.27 DRA, 3.06 ERA in 2015) returns from the disabled list for just his fourth start of 2016, a good sign for an already-thin Rangers rotation. The Cubs send out Jason Hammel (4.46, 3.46 in 2016), who left his last start before the break with hand cramps. Hammel hopes to stave off the second-half blues he’s experienced the past few seasons, but, since his specific problems for those seasons are different, he presents somewhat of an analytical conundrum with regard to those struggles. It’s another matinée at Wrigley Field, 1:20 Central, and the Cubs look for a series win.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports