The biggest story facing the Chicago Cubs in the second half of the season would be the play of the starting rotation. Yes, the Cubs entered the break with the 11th best rotation ERA (3.88) but much of that was anchored by the All-Star-caliber play of Jon Lester.
Kyle Hendricks, Thursday night’s starter against the St. Louis Cardinals, was in the majority of the Cubs’ rotation that had struggled during the first half of the season. While his ERA sat at a solid 3.92 entering Thursday, Hendricks posted a 7.03 mark during the month of June to push his ERA to 4.21 by the end of the month.
Despite that down month, Hendricks bounced back nicely heading into the All-Star break. In three starts spanning 18.1 innings, the right-hander posted a 2.45 ERA, setting Hendricks up for a solid second half.
On Thursday, however, those thoughts would need to be put on hold.
Despite Hendricks’ rocky outing, the Cubs were able to defeat the Cardinals in comeback fashion, 9-6.
One of the issues that has plagued Hendricks for much of the season has been his inability to limit first inning damage. Entering play, Hendricks was sporting an 8.53 ERA during the first frames of his 19 starts. That number would only continue to climb as Marcell Ozuna singled with a runner on second, giving the Cardinals an early 1-0 lead.
In the second inning, another issue that has plagued Hendricks this season reared its ugly head. Coming into the 2018 season, Hendricks had not issued more than 17 home runs in a season. Entering play on Thursday, Hendricks had already allowed 17 long balls, resulting in a 1.4 HR/9 mark for the right-hander.
Tommy Pham, the second batter of the inning, broke Hendricks’ career mark for home runs in a season as he blasted a pitch beyond the bleachers in left field. That moonshot put the Cardinals up 2-0.
Despite needing more than 80 pitches to make it through four innings, Hendricks was able to keep the Cardinals off the board until the fifth inning. In that frame, the Cardinals loaded the bases on two singles and a walk before Kolten Wong stretched the Cardinals’ lead to 3-1 with an infield hit.
That knock ended the night for Hendricks who failed to make it at least five innings for only the second time this season. The right-hander’s final line looked like this: 4.2 innings, nine hits, three earned runs, one walk and four strikeouts on 113 pitches. While Hendricks was able to limit the damage, his stuff was not near as crisp as it was in his starts leading up to the break.
With a two-run deficit staring them in the face after four and a half innings, the Cubs’ offense went to work like they have so many times this season. Entering play, the Cubs owned a 25-24 record when their opponents scored first. If they can continue that trend for the remainder of the season, the Cubs will be first team since 2004 to finish above .500 in that category.
If the Cubs win tonight they will be 26-24 on the season when their opponent scores first. According to Elias, the last time a team finished above .500 for the season, when the opposition tallies the first run of the game, was 2004. The Giants were… https://t.co/mrPURDruXZ
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) July 20, 2018
As alluded to above, the Cubs picked up their 26th such win on Thursday after scoring five runs in the home half of the fifth inning.
Anthony Rizzo got the rally started, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to 3-2 with his second double of the game into the right-center field gap. A single later, Heyward stepped to the plate with runners on the corners. Entering play, Heyward was hitting an impressive .339 with men in scoring position this season. The veteran only added to that number on Thursday as he singled through the shift and into right field, tying the game at three.
Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ capped off the comeback, adding three runs, one on a sac-fly and two on a home run, making the Cubs’ lead 6-3 in the fifth. That two-run shot gives Happ 12 home runs on the season, a year after he mashed 24 during his rookie campaign.
One of the strengths of the Cubs entering the All-Star break was the play of their bullpen. Prior to Thursday’s action, the Cubs owned the fourth best bullpen ERA (3.09) in the majors. Despite a slew of injuries to their top guys at times during the first half, the Cubs were able to piece together solid play from multiple Triple-A relievers.
With their top guys now healthy, the exception being Brandon Morrow, the Cubs’ bullpen was able to hold the Cardinals in check on Thursday. After Hendricks was unable to make it out of the fifth inning, Brian Duensing used seven pitches to end the Cardinals’ threat and keep the game close. While Anthony Bass allowed a solo home run in the sixth inning making the score 6-4, Steve Cishek worked a 12-pitch seventh to cool the St. Louis bats. In the eighth, the Cubs used a combination of Cishek, Justin Wilson and Carl Edwards Jr. to record three outs. Edwards was also brought on to work the ninth, but yielded to Pedro Strop after giving up a run.
Overall, the Cubs’ bullpen allowed three runs but was able to eat 4.1 innings, locking down the win for the home team while the offense tacked on runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
With the win, the Cubs move to 56-38 while the Cardinals drop to 48-47 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will continue their five-game set with the Cardinals on Friday, July 20 at 1:20 p.m. at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the North Sider’s will be Jon Lester (12-2, 2.58 ERA). Lester has been the most consistent starting pitcher for the Cubs this season despite a 4.86 ERA over his last three starts.
Opposing Lester will be Jack Flaherty (3-4, 3.24 ERA). The Cardinals’ right-hander, like Lester, has struggled through the early parts of July. In three starts spanning 13.1 innings, Flasherty owns a 4.73 ERA as St. Louis has dropped each of those three games.
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