Going into today’s game, there were an awful lot of “NLDS Preview” takes for a team that had lost three in a row, was sitting at six over .500, and was all of half a game ahead of the team that somehow still employs Matt Garza.
So naturally, the Cubs and Nationals played a remarkable facsimile of a playoff game. On a day where one of the starters was Edwin Jackson no less. It’s a shame Kyuji Fujikawa and Junior Lake couldn’t make it, since today was apparently the 2013 Cubs Celebration at Wrigley.
Although you have to admit: Wade Davis commemorated it with one hell of a Carlos Marmol impression in the ninth.
The only way I could have more repressed memories of the Edwin Jackson era is if he were leading my First Communion mass. But from what I recall, the basic pattern for his games with the Cubs was: he’d give up a bunch of runs in the first, look like he was settling down for the next few innings, and then just as Len Kasper was about to congratulate him for giving the team some innings, he’d give up another six in the fifth.
Today, the Cubs got the first two parts down perfectly. After Bryce Harper gave the Nats a quick 1-0 lead in the first with today’s mandatory home run off of John Lackey, the bats quickly struck back with four off Jackson in the bottom of the inning. Back to back doubles by John Jay and Kris Bryant quickly tied it. An infield squibber by Willson Contreras gave them the lead. Alex Avila then lined a shot into the basket under the juniper bushes in center field and the Cubs were up 4-1.
From there, Jackson completely shut them down for the next four innings. And in what can only be described as the highlight of his year, he managed to get through the game playing on the same team for which he started.
Meanwhile, Lackey turned in a perfectly serviceable fifth starter performance. It seems like no matter where a pitcher is in the batting order, the Nats’ 3-4-5-6 hitters loom over every inning. In that context, five innings, six hits, and two earned runs is a very good outing from a 38-year-old nearing the finish line.
For most of his career, Lackey took the mound as if every pitch was trying to personify the state of Texas. His ideal fastball would have been one that would stop halfway to the plate, put on an Austin 3:16 shirt, and chug two beers while putting Gary Pressy played “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.”
Now in his last year with the Cubs, Lackey pitches more like Rick Perry after he put on glasses. For the first time in his career, he appears to be cognizant of the fact that his catcher has more than an index finger. And while attacking the Nats lineup with that approach makes us as comfortable as Rick Perry memorizing a nuclear code with more than three characters, today he was effective enough.
The difference in this game came down to the bullpens. As you’d expect it would in any game with the Washington Nationals. When Dusty Baker went to his relief pitchers, WLS ran a graphic proclaiming that the Nats bullpen’s pre-All Star break ERA was 5.30. Since then, it’s been 4.07. Both Len and JD commented that this represented an improvement. And mathematically, that’s certainly the case.
Except…a 4.07 ERA is still not great.
Matt Grace was tasked with protecting a one run deficit in the sixth. Anthony Rizzo greeted him by lining a single to right field. And then Willson Contreras obliterated the next offering into the left field bleachers. Before you could say “Thanks Abuelito,” Contreras was circling the bases and the Cubs were suddenly up 6-3. And for the first time in Cubs history, Grace was the slumpbuster.
Meanwhile, Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop continued their respective great runs in the sixth and seventh. Then Justin Wilson and Wade Davis made things much scarier in the eighth and ninth innings, each allowing two batters to reach base. Thankfully, only one run ended up scoring and it did so on an error.
And I think you’d agree it was all worth it to watch Daniel Murphy pop foul to Bryant and say a word that I’m 99 percent sure is not in The Bible. Not even in Revelation.
Top Play (WPA): Avila’s first inning homer (+.164) barely beats out Contreras’s sixth inning cannon shot (+.140). That’s about the only thing Contreras is losing out on this week. And after Willson’s homer, Matt Wieters got kicked out for arguing with home plate umpire Chad Whitson. Presumably because Whitson informed him that there is no baseball rule allowing the Nats pitching staff to say “No thanks.”
Bottom Play (WPA): Harper’s first inning homer (-.102). On a 1-2 pitch, Avila motioned for a high fastball. Lackey threw it down the middle. And the studio sent the script back with a note to get rid of the predictable ending.
Up Next: The rubber game pits Jon Lester against Erick Fedde. The Cubs will try to take the series by wapping Fedde all over the park. That’s the perfect joke “hot zone” because half of our readers are rolling their eyes at that line, and the other half are too old to get it.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports