July 10, 2014 & The Cubs’ True Turn Toward Competitive Baseball

Let’s turn the clock back. Back before the Cubs were hte 2016 world champions. Back before their improbable 2015 run. Back to 2014. July 10, 2014, specifically. A day in which the 39-52, cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs, riding a six-game losing streak took on the Cincinnati Reds. The July afternoon matinee at the Great American Ball Park came and went like any other, but, in my book, took place on the specific date that marked the turning point in Theo and Jed’s Excellent Adventure that resulted in the Cubs’ first World Series championship in 108 years.

In the years since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the reigns of the Cubs front office, it became understood that the team was going to be, quite simply, bad for a while before it hit a competitive window. But, having lost 91, 101 and 96 games, respectively, in the three previous seasons, the patience of Cubs’ fans began to wear thin. Though there was a consensus across baseball that the Cubs had cultivated one of the absolute best farm systems in the game (and potentially of all time), fans were eager to see some of these names like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, or Jorge Soler hit the major league field. On top of that, less than a week before July 10, on July 4, 2014, the Cubs had traded one of their best major league players, Jeff Samardzija, for another intangible prospect by the name of Addison Russell. Though most engaged fans recognized that this short-term sacrifice was for long-term gain, even they began to grow restless.

But on July 9, hardcore prospect fans got their first wish, as the Cubs promoted center fielder and infielder Arismendy Alcantara to the majors to replace Darwin Barney, who was heading to the paternity list. Though in hindsight it’s funny to think how the promotion of Alcantara, presently a career .198/.244/.332 hitter, seemed major at the time, he had been off to a terrific start in Iowa and had seen his prospect stock skyrocket over the first half of the year. Alcantara was hitting to a stellar .307/.353/.537 slashline in Iowa with 10 home runs and 11 triples (good enough that the writer of this piece cavalierly promised his friend in Boston that Alcantara and Mookie Betts would wind up being comparable players). Alcantara’s promotion signaled a drastic change in the Cubs’ philosophy – suddenly, if prospects were ready, they were going to get the call to see what they could do at the big league level. The Cubs knew they were on the precipice of competing and getting these prospects action now could help them adjust when the team’s window fully opened.

Alcantara made his major league debut on the 9th and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Yet, he found himself batting second in the next lineup on July 10. Also in that lineup was a pitcher making his major league debut – someone who would go on to much greater Major League success than Alcantara: Kyle Hendricks. A relatively unheralded prospect when acquired at the 2012 trade deadline from Texas, Hendricks had burst onto the scene with an outstanding 2013 as he split time between Tennessee and Iowa. For his great 2013, Hendricks was named the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year. Nonetheless, Hendricks still was unable to really solidify himself as a top-shelf prospect due to his lower velocity and reliance on control. After a good start to his 2014 in Iowa, on July 10, Hendricks got the call to fill in into the rotation spot vacated by Samardzija.

Taking the mound against the Reds on the 10th, the famously tranquil Hendricks’ nerves showed. In his first professional inning, he allowed a walk to Reds’ leadoff hitter Chris Heisey. Then another to Skip Schumaker. After retiring Todd Frazier on a popup, he surrendered an RBI double to Brayan Pena, and RBI singles to Ryan Ludwick and Ramon Santiago. Before Hendricks escaped, the Reds sent all nine men to the plate, scoring three.

Hendricks settled down in the second as he retired the side in order. In the third, he surrendered a solo shot to Ludwick, but appeared more comfortable. But the true test of Hendricks came in the bottom of the sixth. Down 4-3 (the Cubs had closed the gap on three RBIs from Alcantara: a sacrifice fly and a two-run double), Hendricks allowed a leadoff single to Ludwick and, with one away, hit Zack Cozart with a pitch. In a jam, with slugger Jay Bruce preparing to pinch-hit, manager Rick Renteria walked to the mound, ready to replace his rookie starter. But Hendricks defiantly resisted. As Renteria later recalled, “[Hendricks] said, ‘I’ve got this guy. I know exactly how I’m going to attack him.’” And he wasn’t wrong. Hendricks struck Bruce out to end both the inning and his debut.

In the top of the eighth, a Starlin Castro single off Jonathan Broxton plated Alcantara as the Cubs drew even at four. In the bottom half of the inning, Pedro Strop escaped a bases-loaded jam by fanning Chris Heisey.

This set the stage for the most remembered moment of the July 10 Cubs-Reds affair. The Cubs were no stranger to the flamethrowing Reds closer, Aroldis Chapman, when he took the mound in the ninth and fired an errant 101mph fastball over the head of Cubs right fielder Nate Schierholtz. But, when Chapman threw a second triple-digit pitch near Schierholtz’ head, the Cubs’ bench went wild. Leading the charge was Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ young first baseman who had gotten off to the best start of his career in 2014. After Chapman stared into the Cubs’ dugout upon striking Schierholtz out, both Rizzo and outfielder Chris Coghlan gave him an earful. A very enjoyable walk to backup catcher John Baker and a groundout from Junior Lake later, Chapman ended the inning. Yet, he dismissively flicked his glove at Rizzo and the Cubs dugout, as if to say that these Chicago Cubs weren’t worth his time.

When the Cubs took the field for the bottom half of the ninth, players in the Reds’ dugout began clamoring at Rizzo, who barked back, began walking over, and threw down his glove. The benches cleared but there were no punches thrown or ejections handed out.

As made clear by the commentary from Jim DeShaies, Chapman had no initial intention to throw at Schierholtz, but Rizzo’s reaction to a teammate nearly receiving two 100+ mph pitches in the ear was justified. For the first time in his career, Rizzo’s voice stood out from the dugout. Rizzo would ultimately use that same voice to speak up during the rain delay meeting on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, as he would call upon his teammates to pick up the slack for their embattled and distraught closer, Aroldis Chapman.

The Cubs ultimately won the ballgame 6-4 thanks to a two-run triple by Luis Valbuena that scored Castro and Alcantara—who wrapped up his second professional game by going 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, two runs scored, three RBIs, and his first career hit. Receiving no decision in this ballgame, Hendricks would remain in the rotation for the rest of the 2014 season, pitching to a great 2.46/3.32/3.92 line and a 1.5 WARP (arbitrarily removing that first inning of his career gives him an even more sparkling 2.13 ERA). Plus, his defiant strikeout of Jay Bruce showed a flash of the calmness he would use down the road to throw a gem in the 2016 NLCS clincher and to keep the Cubs in the lead during game seven of the World Series. Anyone who remembered Hendricks’ debut knew that he had those gutsy performances in him.

Though Rizzo had an eventful day on the field with his skirmish with Chapman, he also had one off the field, as that evening he was elected to his first MLB All-Star Game, as the #VoteRizzo campaign was successful in granting Rizzo the last spot on the National League roster. Rizzo was named an All-Star for the first time in his career on the day that he found his voice to stand up for his teammates.

Three years out, it’s incredible to reflect upon the major developments of that July day. On July 10, 2014, the Cubs had begun to promote their prospects like Alcantara, found a young, gutsy pitcher like Hendricks, and discover a leader in the clubhouse and on the field in Rizzo. Suddenly, this team was beginning to look competitive. And, holy cow, were they ever.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports

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