Top Play (WPA): Let’s take a moment to swoon over Yu Darvish’s slider: a dirty, pretty thing that eludes batters with its sudden downward drop-off. In just his fourth start of 2016 and his first following a DL stint for shoulder discomfort, Darvish wielded his standout pitch brilliantly, striking out seven Cubs by the time Anthony Rizzo came up to bat in the third inning. With Miguel Montero having reached base on a walk followed by a Tommy La Stella single, Rizzo lined, yes, a Darvish slider to the right-field corner for a double, scoring both of his teammates (+0.240) and putting the Cubs up 2-1.
La Stella’s role in the Cubs’ success today should not be minimized. Despite some recent cooling off, La Stella was slotted into the Cubs’ lefty-heavy lineup batting leadoff, and he assumed the role effectively with a hit, a walk, and a run scored. When Darvish completed his outing after 90 pitches and 4 ⅓ innings pitched, La Stella stood as the only Cub he’d failed to strike out.
Bottom Play (WPA): There was one notable moment of chaos for the Cubs in what was otherwise a fairly tidy game, and it game with two outs in the second frame. Ryan Rua stood on second base after a single and a steal, and the Rangers’ left fielder headed to third when Elvis Andrus grounded a ball to Addison Russell, rushing the shortstop into making a wide throw to Rizzo. Rua broke toward home and scored easily (-0.081) when Rizzo airmailed the throw, putting his team up 1-0. Luckily, after chasing down the over-hurled ball, Montero was able to beat Andrus with a throw to second which ended the inning.
Key Moment: Matt Szczur’s presence on Saturday was limited to one plate appearance, pinch hitting for Hammel in the bottom of the sixth, but that was enough for the Cubs’ stalwart bench guy to change the game. With two on and two out, Szczur took the first pitch offered to him by Texas’ Shawn Tolleson, lacing the ball to center and scoring Jason Heyward. Heyward had reached by fielder’s choice and moved to second base on Montero’s walk. The Cubs’ third run ended up not being the deciding run, but it was a welcome cushion to widen a tight game.
Trend to Watch: It’s the second half of the season, which is the collectively-acknowledged cue to worry about Jason Hammel. Nagged by a 5.15 career second half ERA, Hammel did some overhauling this past winter, reexamining his mechanical discipline, his diet, and his overall process; but success for the righty tends to lie immediately in his fastball placement and slider movement.
The latter especially was terrific today, inducing Ks (seven through six innings pitched) and weak contact to cap the Rangers’ production at a single run. It was a welcome contrast to Hammel’s recent longball-plagued appearances, and it gives us some hope that the period from July onward doesn’t always have to portend doom. For further reading on the sustainability of what has largely been a fine first half for Hammel, do have a look at Mike Banghart’s recent piece weighing skill and luck.
Up Next: John Lackey will take the mound Sunday in the final game of this Rangers series. The right-hander has looked shaky in recent starts, and, as Andrew Felper noted in his series preview, his pitch usage has varied wildly during that time. Lackey’s continuing quest for stability will come against Texas’ Cole Hamels, who’s also looking for something of a rebound. Hamels has a respectable 3.21 ERA this season, but his 4.55 FIP tells a different story, as does the fact that he’s failed to complete five innings in each of his past two starts. You can catch the game on ABC7 at 1:20pm CST tomorrow. 670 The Score will have you covered on radio.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports