In dropping both games on the Southside this week, the Cubs sentenced themselves to their first non-victorious series of the second half. Despite a brightened outlook of late, the blow seemed to recall the gloom of that pre-break slump. After a satisfying win in game three, the Cubs needed this one, too, not merely to eke out a split with crosstown rivals, but to carry momentum and set the tone for the rapidly approaching third act of 2016.
John Lackey came in desperate for a W after eight consecutive winless starts and a troubling new tendency to give up the long ball. Cubs bats were looking for a statement performance against an elite arm in the form of Chris Sale. Fans were hoping for a successful finish from the new-look bullpen. Tonight, led by a top-form Lackey with slider working, everyone got what they needed.
Top Play (WPA): Ben Zobrist entered the night with the most successful history against Sale (six hits in 11 at bats), and his go-ahead RBI single in the third inning to score Fowler gave the Cubs a 2-1 edge that would hold up (+.140). Zobrist went 2-for-4 on the night, adding a double and scoring a huge insurance run in the eighth. It’s been a roller coaster season at the plate for the versatile veteran, and he is due for another surge this half.
Bottom Play (WPA): The closest the White Sox came to spoiling the party came in the middle leg of the much anticipated Strop-Rondon-Chapman experience to shut down the final three innings of a close game. Rondon complicated matters tonight by serving up a leadoff double to Tyler Saladino to start the eighth (-.150). He retired the next two batters, but with Saladino hovering dangerously at third, it was time for an early call to the closer.
Key Moment: After wowing Wrigley with his blazing velocity in last night’s non-save debut, Chapman’s first save situation in a Cubs uniform came in dramatic four-out fashion. The lefty-punishing Melky Cabrera sought to plate the tying run, just 90 feet away with two outs in the eighth. But he couldn’t catch up to Chapman’s heat, striking out swinging to end the threat. The new Cubs closer completed the save with a 1-2-3 ninth featuring two ground outs and another K. Seemingly undistracted by a rocky introduction to Chicago media upon arrival, in two stellar appearances Chapman’s eyebrow raising talent has been as-advertised.
Trend to Watch: Until the late inning drama of the four-out save, this game had the comfortably familiar feel of the springtime Cubs. Backed by efficient, dominant pitching and solid defense, the lineup, though largely held at bay against an opposing ace, worked patient, quality at bats, pushed the starter’s pitch count, and grinded out enough offense to do the job. Dexter Fowler’s “you go, we go” presence was in full effect, as he reached base three times and scored twice. With the Cubs’ first RBI of the game, Kris Bryant found what he’s been searching for of late: a screaming double to the vines in right center off a Chris Sale changeup, of all things. They came together to pull out a close one, and it looked suspiciously once again like a playoff-caliber team.
Coming Next: The Cubs stay home for more interleague action as the middle-of-the-road Mariners come to town. The series kicks off Friday afternoon at 1:20 CT, with Jon Lester taking on the recently sharp Hisashi Iwakuma (4-0 in July with a 2.45 ERA). Check out Andrew Felper’s preview for a complete rundown of what to expect this weekend at the Confines.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports