Game 91 Recap: Rangers 4 Cubs 1

A bad sequence John Lackey didn’t stop soon enough, and a dominant performance by Cole Hamels prevented the Cubs from sweeping the Rangers, but the wins Friday and Saturday ensured the team would begin the second half on the right foot.

Top Play (WPA): For two uneasy innings, it looked like Hamels might shut the Cubs down every bit as sternly on Sunday as he did last July 25, when he no-hit them and struck out 13 batters. In the bottom of the third, though, a one-out ground ball to third base off the bat of Albert Almora, Jr. skipped off the heel of Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre’s glove, and Almora became the first base runner of the day for Chicago. One batter later, Javier Baez (somewhat miscast in the leadoff role Joe Maddon has occasionally asked him to play while Dexter Fowler is on the DL, but steadily growing into a solid hitter for average and power) pounced on Hamels’s first pitch, lining a double into the left-field corner to score Almora (+0.124 WPA). It was the best contact any Cubs batter made against Hamels, and the only extra-base hit the team managed all day.

Bottom Play (WPA): The Rangers led 3-1 from the top of the third through the end of the seventh, but the Cubs did mount one serious threat during that stretch. It came in the seventh inning, when Willson Contreras led off with a broken-bat single through the left side of the infield, and Addison Russell flared a single into left-center field, the ball eluding the glove of a sliding Ian Desmond. With two on and nobody out, there was a real chance for a breakthrough, despite the gem Hamels had spun to that point. Jason Heyward took one pitch, a ball, then lined the next one just inside the first base line, a low line drive that certainly had some chance of turning into an RBI or even two-run, game-tying double. Instead, Prince Fielder caught the ball, shin-high, backhanded, and beat a diving Russell in the ensuing race to first base (-0.203 WPA). That left just a runner on second, with two outs and Matt Szczur coming to bat. Szczur hit the ball somewhat sharply, but right back to Hamels, who flipped to first base to end the inning.

Key Moment: The top of the second inning went sideways from the start for John Lackey. He had cruised through the first inning (fly out, strikeout, groundout), but Prince Fielder started the second by scalding a line drive into the right-field corner, a single only because it was hit so hard (112 miles per hour), and because Jason Heyward is such a good right fielder, and because Fielder is so frightfully slow. Ryan Rua spanked an 0-1 pitch into left field (109 mph) to put runners on first and second. Lackey got Nomar Mazara on a called third strike, but then gave up three straight batted balls at 94 miles per hour, all elevated: an RBI single for Elvis Andrus, a sacrifice fly by Robinson Chirinos (and that, rather than a double, only because Almora made a great catch going into the wall somewhere left of true center field), and another line-drive single, this one by Hamels. Hamels’s hit didn’t drive in a run—Texas didn’t put their third run on the board until the fourth inning, when Chirinos blooped a double into the left-field corner—but it was indicative of the problems Lackey was having. He couldn’t seem to locate, couldn’t stay out of the middle of the plate, and was unable to keep the Rangers guessing over that sequence. On a better day for the offense, a stretch like that would have been a more acceptable aberration in an otherwise strong outing for Lackey. On Sunday, it was a fatal loss of feel, however temporary.

Trend to Watch: Miguel Montero has caught Lackey just once in the last six weeks. That’s peculiar. The pair might not be a perfect temperamental match, and Lackey’s slowness to the plate does open the running game up more when Montero’s weak arm is behind the plate, but Montero is the best catcher on the staff at shortening bad sequences for his pitchers, at framing, and at insisting upon sticking to the game plan when frustration, strike-zone concerns, or some other factor tempts a starter to give in or adjust too soon. The evidence suggests that Maddon and company agree; the problem has been matchups. Six of the last seven times Lackey has taken the mound, the Cubs have faced left-handed starters. With Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler on the shelf, the Cubs can ill afford to shorten their lineup further against lefties by having Montero face them. With some better luck, Montero and Lackey could get to work together more often going forward, especially if the outfield regains full health over the next two weeks and eases the pressure to maximize right-handed offense when opponents send southpaws to the mound. That should help Lackey get back on track.

What’s Next: The Mets come to town Monday night, and the first two games of the series will each be an hour earlier than usual, for home games at Wrigley: 6:05 CT. Monday night’s contest will feature lefties Steven Matz and Jon Lester. You can find it on WPWR in the Chicago area, and ESPN elsewhere.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports

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