There’s a scene in the 1990 movie Awakenings when Robert De Niro’s character stands outside for the first time after decades in a catatonic state. He looks around with a sort of bewildered smile and remarks, “What a beautiful place the Bronx has turned out to be.” He says it almost like it’s caught him off guard, like he didn’t expect that in his decades of seeming sleep, things would blossom around him in such a way.
There’s still a bit of this kind of bewilderment in Cubs fans. After decades as catatonics, the blossoming of this team is disarming. And maybe that’s why we still clench our fists and brace for impact when this team scuffles a bit.
So, following a drubbing on Saturday and then a listless offensive effort on Sunday, the first seven innings tonight felt more ominous than they should have. A pesky home run from Brandon Phillips, a triple that comes on a surprisingly bad route to the ball from Jason Heyward, and it’s 2-0 and the Cubs are slumped over in a chair yet again.
But what a beautiful team the Cubs have turned out to be. Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, and Jason Heyward all shocked things to life and forced us to stop and smile, bewildered.
Top Play (WPA): It was as bleak as tonight’s Bears-Eagles game until Addison Russell homered in the seventh inning. But even after that, the Cubs were still at a deficit, however small. But Willson Contreras turned Tim Adleman’s 2-2 changeup into a tape measure no-doubter to left field (+.246).
Bottom Play (WPA): When Brandon Phillips flailed at a fastball from Jason Hammel and somehow turned it into a home run in the second inning, the Reds staked an early claim on the lead (-.110), a claim that it appeared that they would hold on to for the rest of the night for several innings afterward.
Key Moment: The obvious choice might be the game-tying home run from Willson Contreras, right. It’s really hard to argue against that moment because it resets the game in that respect, but something about the Addison Russell home run felt like a catalyst, both in the moment and in hindsight. It set off a chain of events that led to three runs that inning and an entirely different game.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the sterling start that Jason Hammel had as well. He allowed just the two runs across seven full innings and struck out six. Both runs felt a little cheap, as Brandon Phillips swung awkwardly at Hammel’s fastball and still found a way to push it across the wall in left center. And then Hernan Iribarren tripled on a hit that Jason Heyward probably cuts off on any other night. If he does take a better route to the ball, Iribarren gets just a single instead, and isn’t standing on third when Joey Votto singles in the next at bat.
Trend to Watch: Right when our fists were poised above the panic button when the offense just couldn’t produce anything against Tim Adleman, Tim Adleman, they reminded us that they are the Cubs and that the Reds are actually a very bad baseball team. Weird stuff happens, but the chasm between the quality of these two teams is wide, and being fluky only gets you so far.
Earlier today, Isaac Bennett pointed out that Jason Hammel is indeed a good starter, especially when viewed as a back of the rotation pitcher. While his spot on the playoff roster is definitely tenuous, a couple more starts like this one might make that status less clear.
Coming Next: Game two of this series starts at 7:05 again, and tomorrow night Jon Lester (17-4, 2.40) takes the ball for the Cubs. The Reds had not announced today’s starter as of this morning, and it appeared as though Keyvius Sampson might get the nod. Instead, they are calling on right-hander Josh Smith (3-1, 4.97). Smith has been used only as a reliever so far this season, though he did make seven starts for the Reds in 2015. Tomorrow’s game can be seen on CSN and heard on 670 AM.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports