Game 97 Recap: Cubs 6 Brewers 5

I had high expectations for today’s game. Before this season, Jon Lester versus Junior Guerra wouldn’t have sounded like anything to look forward to; I’m not really sure what it would have sounded like, since Junior Guerra was not a name I knew. But in 2016, however, the two pitchers have been remarkably similar, and both quite good, giving today’s game some real potential.

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Guerra is a great story—a 31-year-old rookie who was a catcher in the Braves system a decade ago before converting to pitching and playing in indy ball, Mexico, Venezuela, and Italy before making the majors with the Brewers—but he’s the kind of great story you want to happen to other teams, not to your own. Unfortunately, neither pitcher was sharp today; Lester left after four-plus innings, with seven strikeouts and five walks, while Guerra lasted six and a third, with two strikeouts and four walks. But while Guerra escaped danger at every opportunity this afternoon, Lester got slapped with four runs, and a game that looked likely to be fun and exciting suddenly had the potential to be deeply upsetting. Instead, the Cubs bullpen showed off its chops and kept the game close, until the relentless offense did their part (with a little help from the Brewers bullpen) and took the lead back, making the unfairness of the baseball gods merely a footnote to today’s come-from-behind victory. Here’s hoping Lester gets back on track, and Guerra too, for that matter; the world can use as many 31-year-old Rookie of the Year candidates as it can get.

Top Play (WPA): So, about that relentless Cubs offense. Anthony Rizzo had a few big opportunities today, but until the sixth inning, he hadn’t come through. In the first, with runners on first and second and nobody out, he grounded into a double play, and in the third, with runners on first and second and two out, he grounded out harmlessly to first. So after Junior Guerra exited the game in the seventh with one out, and Will Smith put four straight runners on, Rizzo came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, a two-run deficit, and possibly a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

While it felt like the Cubs had real momentum, teams in that position have historically won only 34.6% of the time, and while that might seem small, there’s a lot that can go wrong: a double play ends the inning, a strikeout or pop-up largely defuses the situation, and even a fly ball only scores one, leaving the batting team still trailing. As a result, Rizzo and the Cubs were still underdogs when he walked to the plate. When he reached second base after a thunderous bases-clearing double, they were not; they were up by one, and 61.6% to win the game (+.370). That is a colossal swing, and I suspect large enough to clear any chips Rizzo may have been carrying around. A Ben Zobrist single would plate Rizzo as well, and the Cubs left the inning owners of a two-run lead that would last the next two and a half innings.


Bottom Play (WPA): For a while, before the seventh-inning rally that the above play capped off, this was shaping up to be a hugely frustrating game. The Cubs had tons of opportunities that didn’t seem to pay off, starting in the first, when Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant opened the game with consecutive walks, but a double play and strikeout meant nothing resulted. So it felt all too familiar in the sixth, when Bryant singled, Anthony Rizzo reached on an error, and Ben Zobrist singled, scoring a run, putting runners on first and second with nobody out, and seeming to set up a charge for the lead with Willson Contreras coming up. The young slugger has been excellent to date, but at that moment, he was not, getting jammed and grounding into a 6-4-3 double play (-.127) to stifle the rally. It felt like it was emblematic of the way the game as a whole was going, and maybe it was at the time, but thankfully, it didn’t end up that way.

Key Moment: There were lots of moments in the seventh-inning rally that could qualify for this spot, but I’ve decided that the key moment today was Joe Nathan’s three consecutive strikeouts that preceded the rally in the bottom of the sixth. The 41-year-old former Giant, Twin, Ranger, and Tiger was making his first major league appearance after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery for the last 15 months. It didn’t look promising to start; Nathan immediately gave up a triple, a walk, and a stolen base, putting himself into a serious pickle. With the heart of the Brewers’ order coming up, it looked like a manageable three-run deficit was going to bloom into something much worse. Instead, Nathan struck Ryan Braun out looking in a nine-pitch battle, struck Jonathan Lucroy out swinging, and struck Chris Carter out swinging, leaving both runners on and keeping the Cubs within striking distance. And, as we know now, not just hypothetical striking distance, either; even a groundout that scored a run would’ve changed the path of this game significantly.

Still, even if the Cubs hadn’t come back, this would’ve been a great sign. Just as much as a trade acquisition, a healthy and effective Nathan could be a huge boost down the stretch. PECOTA isn’t optimistic—it pegs him for a 4.29 DRA, nothing to write home about—but if today was any indication, he might have some upside over that. The Cubs bullpen has been frustrating (as bullpens tend to be), and it could probably use some reinforcements via trade at some point soon. Today, however, it was Joe Nathan who saved the day, and if everything breaks right, that might be a common statement over the final few months of the season.

Trend to Watch: I’ve been wondering recently why it is that, given what we’ve known about Jon Lester since the 2014 Wild Card game, teams don’t go completely buckwild stealing bases off of him. As Pat Hughes put it during today’s game, “Lester does not make pickoff throws,” and while teams have tried to run on him, they haven’t done a ton of damage. Among qualified starters, he has the third-highest takeoff rate above average (TRAA), indicating more attempted steals than average, but he has a negative swipe rate above average (SRAA), indicating less successful steals than average. Lester clearly does some things right—varying his set time, being quick to the plate—but it’s hard to imagine those are enough to make him above-average at controlling the running game, given that he literally does not make pickoff throws. That includes when he caught Jonathan Villar halfway between second and third, too, and had him dead to rights if he could just make a throw to a base. (Spoiler: he could not.)

After walking Villar to open the game, those two stolen bases got him to third, and a sacrifice fly scored him, putting the Cubs down 1-0 with no hits required. That was only the beginning; there were another three stolen bases while Lester was pitching, plus several attempts that almost certainly would have been successful if not for foul balls (though, to be fair, Jake Elmore was also caught stealing in the fourth). This is not the most important thing in the world; Lester generally does an excellent job of preventing baserunners entirely, which is the best possible way to prevent stolen bases. But on days where Lester isn’t at his sharpest, such as today, being victimized on the base paths by the opposition can really swing a game. It’s worth watching to see if more teams start challenging Lester as aggressively as the Brewers did, and try to take advantage of his yips in a way they haven’t yet this season.

Coming next: The Cubs head out of Milwaukee and return to Chicago for a four-game home-and-home interleague series against the White Sox, starting on the South Side. The probables for the away games are Jake Arrieta vs. Miguel Gonzalez on Monday (7:10, ABC 7/670 The Score) and Kyle Hendricks vs. James Shields on Tuesday (6:10, CSN-C/670 The Score). For the home games, it’s Jason Hammel vs. former Cub Jake Turner on Wednesday (7:05, WGN/670 The Score), and John Lackey vs. Chris Sale on Thursday (7:05, CSN-C/670 The Score).

Lead photo courtesy Benny Sieu—USA Today Sports

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