Things were lining up perfectly today for the easiest recap intro in the history of Baseball Prospectus: Cubs declare independence from .500 mark. It was almost too perfect.
And then the Cubs went and declared independence in the wrong direction.
It was like fighting the Revolutionary War only to declare “Wannabe” our National Anthem.
What You Need to Know: Errors and defensive mistakes. Poor baserunning. Strikeouts with runners in scoring position. The Cubs decided to celebrate the 4th of July by playing like it was Groundhog Day.
In a season made up of 83 Ned Ryersons.
For the first few innings, this felt like a 4th of July party just as “Born in the USA” begins to play on the stereo. And then the rest of the game was like actually listening to the lyrics. The Rays did almost the entirety of their damage in a five-run fourth inning which featured Chris Archer’s first major league hit–an RBI single through the second base hole created by the Cubs’ bunt shift. Ian Happ then decided to commemorate it by attempting to throw the ball out of play all the way from centerfield.
There were some encouraging glimpses of the Cubs that we thought we were going to get this year. A lot of patient at-bats drove Archer’s pitch count up and knocked him out after six. A two out, two-run rally in the fifth put the game back in reach. And it damn near looked like the 2016 Cubs returned with an extended rally in the ninth to cut the lead to 6-5.
But until this happens with more consistency, they’re still just some team that we used to know.
Next Level: As has become apparent, the Cubs have figured out a pretty impressive workaround for Jon Lester’s throwing problem to first base with Willson Contreras ‘s ability to pick off baserunners. But today’s game bedeviled the Cubs ace with a different issue altogether, which is much harder to figure out. Because the Rays just wouldn’t stop hitting the ball directly to Lester.
Their first run in reached base when Steven Souza, Jr. dropped a leadoff bunt that Lester ran toward and then abandoned like it was a Boston Red Sox contract. And then in the seemingly endless fourth, both Adeiny Hechavarria and Souza hit grounders back to the mound deflected that off of various parts of Lester’s body. These two hits ended up restarting the Rays’ rally and drove in the decisive run of the game.
Lester’s normally better than that at fielding balls hit in his direction—as anyone who has seen highlights of him tossing his glove to first can attest. But today it felt like his reaction time just wasn’t there. And there’s no real good way for the Cubs to work around it unless Contreras also happens to have secret Mystique-esque shapeshifting powers that he hasn’t told anyone about.
So if he takes the field for Lester’s next start naked and covered in blue body paint, we’ll know that Joe Maddon is even more of a genius than we thought.
Top Play (WPA): Of all the things to call back from 2016, why did the Cubs pick the “almost but not quite all the way” ninth inning rally? After a leadoff infield single from Albert Almora, Jr. and a walk to John Jay, Anthony Rizzo found himself the tying run at the plate with one out.
After two strikes, Rizzo temporarily abandoned his typical choking up on the bat approach in the hopes of trying to knot the score with one swing. He didn’t do that but still slashed a hissing line drive to right field to make it a two-run game (+.112). A Zobrist fielder’s choice cut the lead to on,e and Ian Happ worked a brilliant at-bat to come back from 0-2 and draw a walk. Unfortunately, Jason Heyward popped a 1-1 pitch to shallow left to stifle the rally, end the game, and surrender the colonies back to The Queen.
Bottom Play (WPA): The Rays took the lead for good on Tim Beckham’s two-run homer into the basket in left center (-.191). On a day where we celebrate our independence from Great Britain, how much does it suck to lose to a guy named “Beckham?” I’m surprised Tampa’s winning pitcher wasn’t Nigel Brexitdoctorwhospotteddickonedirectionvoldemortmisterbeanrepressedemotions.
Up Next: The two-game series concludes with another afternoon game tomorrow. John Lackey opposes Ian Snell. It’ll be a minor victory if it doesn’t end with a chorus of “Sit Down, John.”
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports