Second City October: Pitchers Who Rake and Bullpens That Rock

This piece, written by BP Wrigleyville’s Nate Greabe,  forms part of our in-house coverage of the Cubs in the playoffs, “Second City October.” Additional Game Two and NLDS coverage can be found here and here.

Early on, this game felt familiar. All the same things that made the Cubs good all year worked in first few innings. The Cubs got out to an early lead over old friend Jeff Samardzija, and, for a minute, it felt like we might be in for a smooth victory. But then Kyle Hendricks took an Angel Pagan liner off of his forearm, and suddenly, we were in for a bullpen game at Wrigley.

But, as I say, it started out familiar. The first key moment, as it was so many times this year, was the Cubs’ first at bat of the game. Dexter Fowler went down 0-2 to Jeff Samardzija—who looked excited and who was throwing 97 mph—before working the count back to 3-2, fouling off several pitches, and doubling off the right field wall. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo failed to get Fowler home, but Ben Zobrist, as he has often done, was able to fist a single over the shift in right field and give the Cubs a 1-0 lead.

And it continued. In the bottom of the second, the Cubs loaded the bases on a Jason Heyward double, a Javy Baez walk and a Willson Contreras single, when Hendricks stepped to the plate with no one out. Many teams might try to bunt in such a situation—hoping to at least avoid a double play—but Joe Maddon let Hendricks swing away, and it paid off with a first pitch single to center, which scored two runs and made the score 3-0. Contreras would then score the Cubs’ fourth run on a Bryant single, and Jeff Samardzija was suddenly removed from the game for George Kontos in the top of the third. Things were looking very good for the Cubs at Wrigley.

Kyle Hendricks did  play with fire at times while he was in the game tonight. In the second inning, the Giants put men on first and second with one out before Hendricks induced a 4-6-3 double play. In the third, he allowed a leadoff double to Joe Panik, who was then doubled home by Gregor Blanco, who then himself scored on a sacrifice fly. These runs cut the lead in half, to 4-2, but Hendricks seemed like he was settling in a bit with two outs into the fourth.

But then he took the liner, and, with the pitcher’s spot due up second in the bottom half of the inning, Maddon went to Travis Wood. Wood struggled down the stretch and far out-pitched his peripherals this year, so the 4-2 lead suddenly felt very tenuous. But he got the Cubs out of the top of the fourth and then did this to a grooved Kontos fastball when he came up to hit in the bottom:

Wood’s home run (the tenth of his surprisingly distinguished offensive career) gave the Cubs their third pitcher-provided RBI of the night and a three-run lead. His home run was only the second relief pitcher homer in postseason history. He then pitched a scoreless fifth, before handing the ball over to always-even-skinnier-than-you-remember Carl Edwards Jr., who got the Cubs through the sixth inning (and the meat of the Giants order) on the back of a 98 mph fastball and a nasty curve.

A slight incident occurred in the bottom of the sixth. Javy Baez hit another ball that would have been well over the wall on most nights, but, again, the wind knocked it down a bit. In Game One, the ball still found the basket; in Game Two it hit the top of the wall. Baez jogged around first and was forced to turn on the jets to make it into second, where he slammed his face against Panik’s leg. He seemed clearly safe, but the Giants challenged, and replay showed that Baez might have been off the bag for a split second towards the end of his slide. Panik held the tag, and Baez was called out. To my eye, it wasn’t perfectly clear that he came off, but nevertheless it set off some somewhat unpleasant conversation around Javy’s hustle and MLB replay rules. The video is not yet available, but you should watch it if you would like to form your own take.

Mike Montgomery, in his first career postseason appearance, pitched a clean seventh and got an out in the eighth before allowing a single to Brandon Belt. Maddon went to Hector Rondon, who struck out Buster Posey, got Hunter Pence to ground out to second, and looked every bit his usual dominant self. Aroldis Chapman then pitched the ninth with a 5-2 lead, and set down the side in order. The bullpen final line tonight was five and 1/3 innings pitched, zero runs, six strikeouts, two hits, and zero walks.

The bullpen’s performance was the major story in this game. After moments of doubt and struggles with health throughout the year, the ‘pen managed to finish top five in the NL, and really does look whole now at the most important time of year. Tonight, Wood, Edwards Jr., Montgomery, Rondon, and Chapman showed off the depth of a group that also includes Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Trevor Cahill. If this group continues the way it did tonight, the team can take a few hits like Hendricks took tonight and still push deep into the playoffs.

Kyle Hendricks’ x-rays were negative, and he seemed happy enough to grant Ken Rosenthal an on-field interview after the game. We should watch, though, to see if his forearm bruising is bad enough to slow his preparation for his next start. If so, some pitching plans will have to be readjusted.

The Cubs, 2-0, will now head to San Francisco in excellent position to put the series away. Jake Arrieta will face Madison Bumgarner in Game Three, and then we’ll see Matt Moore and John Lackey in Game Four, if necessary. Watch for Jorge Soler to make his debut in Game Three, and follow who gets the start behind the plate. But mostly enjoy the series lead the Cubs have built, and watch for the baseball’s best team to clinch a spot in the NLCS.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports

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