What you need to know:
This game started weird, and stayed kinda weird, and ended weird. The Cubs pulled it out 9-5, thanks to a 6-run Cubs rally in the 9th, when they scored four runs in a span of 12 pitches tossed by two relievers who succeeded in recording zero outs while surrendering two doubles, an intentional walk, and three singles in those 12 tosses. The ninth-inning struggles proved contagious, as Wade Davis gave up three hits and a walk, loading the bases with one out and one run across, before striking out Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco to snuff out the Pirates re-comeback attempt.
The first inning was weirdly eventful. Anthony Rizzo appeared to lead off with a home run for the third consecutive game when he blasted a 1-2 pitch straight down the right field line very close to the fair pole and into some gross-looking flotsam in the Allegheny River. After Rizzo circled the bases, the umpires reversed the call without a video review, leading to a spirited argument from from Joe Maddon, for which the umpires ultimately ejected him. After a walk, a bloop hit, a wild pitch, and a bases-clearing double by Willson Contreras (thrown out trying to advance to third base), the Cubs emerged from the top of the first down 1-0 in the manager column but up 3-0 in the runs column.
After that, things got weirdly uneventful. After an Eddie Butler squib single in the second inning, Pirates pitchers retired 19 of the next 20 Cub batters until the eighth inning, when Ian Happ doubled on a roller down the third base line but was ultimately stranded.
Thankfully, the Cubs’ bats woke up in the ninth inning, leading to the thrilling six-run inning and a welcome comeback victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Butler started his seventh game for the Cubs, and this being the third recap I’ve written of those seven starts, I’ve got a pretty good sense for what he’s doing. Through his first six starts, he’s been fairly average according to his ERA (4.03) and FIP (4.13), while DRA is even less enthusiastic (6.72).
Something that I’ve monitored since Butler’s first start is how he has changed his pitch repertoire this season:
Note that Brooks Baseball classifies Butler’s “cutter” as a “slider” in 2017, but I refuse to believe that Butler is throwing the same “slider” as he did in previous years. From 2014 through 2016, Butler’s slider averaged 87.6 mph. This season, however, his slider has jumped to 92.4 mph, which would make Butler’s the second-fastest slider in all of baseball, behind Koda Glover’s 93.2 mph slidepiece, and just a hair above Thor’s 92.3 mph slider. So I’m calling it a cutter.
The biggest knock on Butler from an advanced metrics perspective is he hasn’t struck out enough guys. He’s ticked up his strikeout rate this season in MLB to a personal best 16.9 percent. Tonight, however, Butler did not miss many bats or fool too many Pirate batters. In fact, he only induced two swings-and-misses over 93 pitches, both by Francisco Cervelli for some reason but in different at-bats. He failed to record a single strikeout before being pulled in the sixth inning.
Butler’s start wasn’t all bad, though. He carried a no hitter into the third inning, and gave up his first run in the 5th inning on a solo home run by Josh Bell. In the sixth inning, things unraveled when Bell would rear his ugly head again. After a single and a walk sandwiched around two fly outs, Bell drove a 2-2 fastball high off the wall in right for a two-run triple, tying the game at three. Bell would score on a cheap dribbler to Tommy La Stella at third base, putting the Pirates ahead 4-3 and setting the stage for another Cubs let-down or their thrilling comeback. Thankfully, we received the latter.
One thing I noticed is that Justin Grimm has been awesome since coming back from AAA Iowa on May 29. Take a look at the top five relievers in all of MLB since that day through yesterday:
Not bad company. And Grimm submitted a perfect inning with a strikeout in this game as well.
No game recap would be complete without some analysis of the Cubs clutch hitting. Tonight, the Cubs were 6 for 17 with with runners in scoring position, but were 2 for 11 before their magical ninth inning comeback. The Pirates, by contrast, submitted an efficient 3 for 8 with RISP. Two of those hits came before the ninth inning, when the Pirates’ sequencing was impeccable, with those two hits coming back-to-back in the sixth inning with two outs. Their pre-ninth inning placement was also impeccable, with the second of those two hits being Andrew McCutcheon’s screamer leaving his bat at 55 mph, with a -36° launch angle – similarly mashed batted balls typically have a 12 percent hit probability, and on this occasion it resulted in the go-ahead run. Well la-di-f-ing-da.
Top WPA Play (.320): Willson Contreras game-tying double in the ninth inning, scoring Heyward from second base after his lead-off double.
Honorable Mention (.137): Contreras’ 2-run double off the right-center field wall in the first inning. It would represent the last of the Cubs scoring until Willllllllllllllson tied things up in the 9th.
Bottom WPA Play (-.324): Josh Bell’s 2-out, 2-run triple off the wall in right field that tied the game at three.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports