NGSC Sports

Cubs Hot on Milwaukee’s Tail As They Roll Through First Week of June

Though the Chicago Cubs missed out on the opportunity to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates and jump into first place for the first time since May 1st, the first full week of June baseball went well for Joe Maddon’s club.

The Cubs put together a “win sandwich” last week by first taking two out of three games from the Philadelphia Phillies and then doing the same against the Pirates. The week began with a loss to Philly and concluded with a loss to Pittsburgh. But, thankfully for the Cubs, they won all four games in between.

Besides compiling another week that positively impacted the Cubs’ win-loss total, Chicago gained some more ground on the first place Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs entered the week a full two games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and now sit only half of a game back. Considering Chicago will head to Milwaukee tomorrow for a highly anticipated three-game set with the Crew, the Cubs have put themselves in a very prime spot to move into first place. Chicago has beaten up on the Brewers so far this season. In eight games against Milwaukee, the Cubs have gone 7-1 and have shutout the Brewers four times. 

The biggest storyline in the Northside over the last six games involves the way in which the Cubs have been approaching the game. Chicago has maintained and built upon its recently found swagger reminiscent of the 2016 world champions.

The 2016 Cubs went out to play every day and truly believed they would win each game. Well, maybe they didn’t. But, their body language and enthusiasm gave the impression that the W flag would be flying after each nine-inning contest.

That high level of chemistry and confidence is something that many believe the Cubs have been searching for since 2016. To clarify, I’m not saying these Cubs have reached that. However, over the course of the last two and half weeks in which Chicago has won 12 of 16 games, they’ve continued to get closer.

During the 2016 season, it really never felt like the Cubs were out of a game. If they went down a few runs, it seemed almost inevitable that Chicago would pull a rally of some sort out of its back pocket. And when they would take a lead early, it felt like they had already won the game. This had a lot to do with timeliness. The 2016 Cubs always came up with a big out or a string of hits when they needed it most.

Timeliness, specifically timely hitting, has been an issue for the current Cubs squad. But, in the midst of their successful stretch, Chicago’s production of hits at crucial moments of the game has been improving. Maybe that’s why these Cubs have been reminding us more and more of the world champions lately.

The most relevant example of this last week came on Wednesday night against the Phillies when Jason Heyward launched the 253rd walk-off grand slam in MLB history into the bleachers. In addition to notching his most significant hit as a Cub, Heyward put together another impressive week offensively.

The Cubs’ right fielder collected at least one hit in each of the five games he played last week. Overall, Heyward went 7-21 at the dish and clubbed four extra-base knocks.

Jason Heyward gets bathed in Gatorade after launching a walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on Wednesday. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Chicago scored a total of 18 runs last week in six games. An average of three runs per game is far from an ideal week offensively. But, they scored when they needed to and the pitching took it from there. There isn’t much more a manager can ask for.

On Thursday, the Cubs produced only six hits in a 4-3 victory over the Phillies. These six hits weren’t aimlessly scattered throughout the game though. Four of Chicago’s hits came during a pivotal three-run fifth inning rally to take a 4-1 lead.

The Pirates jumped out to an early 1-0 lead against the Cubs in the series opener on Friday. Instead of allowing the lead to resonate, Chicago immediately answered. Ben Zobrist knocked in Kris Bryant in the bottom of the first and Anthony Rizzo followed that up with a go-ahead sacrifice fly. The Cubs then tacked one on in the bottom of the second and that was all Chicago needed.

The way in which Chicago’s offense helped contribute to each victory last week sticks to the theme of timeliness. Saturday’s 2-0 win over the Pirates was no different.

Though the Cubs caught a break when Pirates outfielder Starling Marte slipped in the outfield to turn a routine flyout into a double for Heyward, Chicago didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. The Cubs immediately scored the only two runs of the game thereafter.

It’s evident that Chicago’s 18 runs last week went a long way. But, a team will rarely win four of six games in which they score so few runs without solid pitching. And once again, though the Cubs’ starters labored a little more than usual last week, they were able to put forth some decent outings.

Besides Jon Lester, no one in Chicago’s starting rotation is rolling quite like Mike Montgomery right now. In only his third start of the season, “Monty” hurled his third consecutive quality start on Friday against the Pirates. Montgomery actually said he wasn’t feeling it against the Buckos. But, the box score indicates otherwise. The big lefty threw six innings and allowed one earned run. As a starter, this season, Montgomery has tossed 17 ⅔ innings while only allowing two earned runs.

(Photo by Arturo Pardavila III)

Montgomery’s quality start was one of two last week for the Cubs. The other was crafted by Lester against the Pirates. Lester allowed only one hit and no runs over a dominant seven innings.

Elsewhere in the rotation, Tyler Chatwood’s ability to limit walks continues to be an area of concern. The 28-year old walked seven batters on Thursday for the second time this season.

This is especially frustrating considering Chatwood has actually had pretty good stuff. He only allowed one run over four ⅔ innings against the Phillies and holds a respectable 3.86 ERA this season. However, his inability to avoid walking a hand full of batters has held him from pitching deep into games. Chatwood has thrown at least six innings in only three of his 12 starts this season.

Working deep into games has actually been an issue for the majority of the Cubs’ rotation this season. That was evident last week as well. A Chicago starter lasted at least six innings only twice last week. Luckily for the Cubs, their bullpen has been extremely reliable. Last week, however, Chicago’s pen was uncharacteristically shaky.

In 21 ⅔ innings of work from the pen last week, Cubs relievers allowed 12 earned runs for a crooked ERA just shy of five (4.98). For the most part, the pen was actually good. But, the pen absolutely imploded against the Pirates on Sunday. In four innings of work, Cubs relievers allowed six earned runs. A meltdown like that was something we haven’t really seen from Chicago’s pen before Sunday.

There are some positive takeaways from the Cubs’ bullpen last week though. In three outings, Justin Wilson threw three shutout innings combined in which he didn’t allow a hit. Young righty Cory Mazzoni also threw four ⅔ innings in four outings last week and allowed only one earned run.

Finally, the Cubs exciting moments defensively helped highlight the week as well. Ian Happ made a trio of ridiculous diving grabs on Friday, one of which sealed the 3-1 victory with a man on third. Javier Baez also made a spectacular grab before falling into the stands to shut the door on Saturday’s victory. 

Ian Happ makes one of his three terrific diving catches against the Pirates on Friday. (Chicago Tribune)

No team in the NL Central is playing quite like the Cubs right now. Milwaukee won back-to-back games last week in which it scored 12 runs. But, the Brewers lost their three other games and allowed Chicago to creep closer to first place. With the series defeat to the Cubs, Pittsburgh has now dropped seven consecutive series’. The Cardinals had a great opportunity to gain some ground last week considering they played the Marlins and Reds. However, St. Louis won just three of six games against the two struggling clubs. 

 

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