What You Need to Know: The Cubs struck early, putting together a parade of hits and walks and grounders that plated two runs in the first. Kyle Hendricks turned in a brilliant start after walking three in the first two innings, exiting with two outs in the seventh after surrendering his second run of the evening. Kris Bryant added two with his 25th home run, and the Cubs continued their hot streak with their fourth straight win. With the schedule softening, the Cubs have taken control of the NL Central by rattling off some impressive victories lately.
Next Level: The Cubs are rolling right now, and playing well in all facets of the game, so it’s difficult to choose one aspect on which to focus.
So I’ll nitpick, of course, and find something to worry about even as the Cubs continue to streak toward October. Ian Happ misplayed a flyball to the warning track, twisting himself around and gifting Ender Inciarte an extra base. Happ has started six games in right field this season, and isn’t out there often with the stellar Jason Heyward holding the position down, but Happ’s defense has been less than inspiring this season. As September dwindles into October, and the Cubs find themselves in a divisional race and then the playoffs, Joe Maddon will have to pick and choose his outfield carefully.
In terms of defense, there is a clear drop off from Heyward and Albert Almora to the rest of the Cubs’ outfielders. Jon Jay is serviceable, but Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist are poor with the glove. Zobrist will be the odd man out in most situations, considering his struggles with the bat, and Heyward and Jay are almost guaranteed starts versus righties. With Happ and Schwarber sucking up innings in left (and maybe a few at second for Happ), the Cubs will be choosing to face the best lineups with a mediocre overall outfield defense. Inserting Almora in center for late innings and against lefties improves the unit as a whole, but the outfield is a far cry from the halcyon days of Heyward and Dexter Fowler.
Top Play (WPA): The Cubs’ 3-1 lead didn’t quite feel comfortable, despite Hendricks’s considerable efforts, and a one-out Ben Zobrist walk set up the Cubs’ biggest blow of the night to quell any doubts. With 2015 Cubs legend Jason Motte on the mound, Kris Bryant quickly went down 0-2. A pick off throw to check on Zobrist only delayed the inevitable, however: a waist-high fastball ended up in the left field bleachers after Bryant put just enough of a swing on it (+.099). Very few plays moved the win expectancy needle too much in either direction on the night, as the Cubs had the game firmly in hand all night.
Bottom Play (WPA): With Addison Russell out and Javier Baez sliding over to shortstop, Ben Zobrist has found some more time at second base. Unfortunately, Zobrist made a rare error to lead off the fifth, allowing Dansby Swanson to reach, and after a sac bunt and groundout moving Swanson to third, Ozzie Albies swatted a single just under Kyle Hendricks’s glove into center to score the Braves’ first run (-.069).
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports