In two of the Chicago Cubs last three games, they have been tasked with facing two of the better pitchers in the game of baseball. On August 27, the North Sider’s squared off against Noah Syndergaard and the lowly New York Mets. Syndergaard entered play with a solid 3.38 ERA but left with an elevated number of 3.51 after the Cubs tagged him for nine hits and four earned runs over six innings in a 7-4 win.
One night later, it was more good pitching to face the Cubs, this time in the form of Jacob deGrom. deGrom, who entered play with a league leading 1.71 ERA, did not shy away from the task of facing the Cubs. Unlike against Syndergaard, the Cubs could not figure deGrom out. Over eight innings, the right-hander held the Cubs to one earned run on eight hits while recording 10 strikeouts. Despite the lack of offense, the Cubs’ managed to scratch across a run in the seventh inning to tie the game and send the affair into extras. That is when Ben Zobrist played the hero and finished the Mets with a single in the bottom of the 11th a day after play began.
Going into those two games with Syndergaard and deGrom on the mound, the Cubs knew they would be put to the test offensively. Against Syndergaard, the Cubs did everything right, knocking around the righty and taking home the victory. While not much was done against deGrom, the Cubs’ offense did just enough to ruin the solid start from the Mets’ ace and down New York.
Following an ugly loss against Jason Vargas and company on Wednesday, the Cubs rolled into Atlanta knowing they had to face yet another solid starting pitcher. This time, it was in the form of Mike Foltynewicz. The Braves right-hander entered play with the seventh best ERA (2.67) in the majors and 11th best K/9 (10.49) in the league.
In the first inning of Thursday night’s affair at SunTrust Park, it did not take long for Foltynewicz to show-case his strikeout stuff, getting Daniel Murphy to whiff for the first out of the game.
Despite being retired one, two, three in the first, the Cubs responded quickly in the second frame Leading off the inning, Ben Zobrist continued to build upon his back-bounce 2018 campaign. Entering play, the switch-hitting utility man was slashing .312/.391/.461 on the season and carried a .338 August batting average. For his 27th hit of the month, Zobrist roped a ball down the right field line for a lead-off double, his eight of the month.
That lead double kicked off a rally for the Cubs that included a Jason Heyward HBP and balk by Foltynewicz. That balk moved runners into scoring position for Willson Contreras. Prior to this situation, the first-time All-Star had not been very good with runners in scoring position. Contreras’ fielder’s choice to second base didn’t help his .208 batting average entering play with runners in scoring position but it did give the Cubs the lead in the second inning.
Kyle Schwarber followed Contreras with a fielder’s choice of own but reached base safely after the Braves’ second baseman botched the throw to the plate. Those back-to-back fielder’s choices gave the Cubs an early 2-0 lead, making it seem possible they could get to Foltynewicz throughout the evening.
An inning later, Contreras was back at it, this time helping his numbers with runners in position. A double into left field gave the back-stop his second RBI of the evening and 46th on the year. With those 46 runs driven in, Contreras is 28 away from his career-high of 74 set a year ago. In addition, the 26-year-old has just nine home runs on the year, one season after he hit 21 and showed his power-hitting ability. Despite his lack-luster counting statistics, Contreras owns a solid mid-.300 OBP and .772 OPS, good enough for a 3.2 WAR on the season.
Staked to a three-run lead, Cubs’ starter Mike Montgomery gave one back in the home half of third before giving three more back two innings later. Montgomery, who was making his first start since August 7, looked sharp through four innings. Using his change-up to keep the line moving, the left-hander racked up six punch-outs through his 4.1 innings of work.
The southpaw’s outing was cut short due to an offensive outburst by the home team in the fifth. Three straight hits by the Braves — two singles and a triple — tied the game at three. Following a Nick Markakis ground out, Joe Maddon pulled the southpaw in favor of Brandon Kintzler. Kintzler, a ground ball pitcher, induced a fly ball off the bat of Kurt Suzuki, one that plated the go-ahead run and made it a 4-3 ball game in favor of the Braves.
Montgomery needed 66 pitches to record 13 outs before being relieved. Without that outburst by the Braves in the fifth, it’s possible the southpaw would have lasted at least six innings. Instead, the home team knocked the Cubs’ starter out in the fifth. The left-hander’s final line looked like this: 4.1 innings, eight hits, four earned runs, one walk and six strikeouts on the aforementioned 66 pitches.
Despite giving up the lead in the fifth, the Cubs were able to recover quite nicely the following half inning. Schwarber notched his first hit of the game, a ground ball into left-center field. That hit, Schwarber’s 20th this month, was perhaps, at least until this point, the biggest knock of the month for the lefty slugger. That is because one batter later Tommy La Stella stepped to the plate.
La Stella, who was pinch-hitting for Montgomery, is listed at 5-11, 180 pounds. That, in part, has been to blame for his nine career home runs entering play on Thursday. Of those nine, zero have come this season, that is, until the sixth inning. On a 1-1 count, the lefty batter crushed an offering from Foltynewicz into the right field seats, giving the Cubs a 5-4 lead.
For even further perspective, La Stella began Thursday’s game with a .304 slugging percentage on the season with just six extra base hits all year (all doubles).
La Stella’s home run capped off the damage done against the Braves starter. Even though Foltynewicz finished six innings, the Cubs were able to rough the right-hander up throughout his start. Foltynewicz’s final line looked like this: six innings, six hits, four earned runs, two walks and five strikeouts on 98 pitches. Those earned runs pushed the right-hander’s ERA up to 2.80 and continued the Cubs’ recent success against top-tier starting pitching as their last three wins have come against Syndergaard, deGrom and now Foltynewicz.
The Cubs’ go-ahead home run in the sixth held up due to a solid effort by the bullpen. Following Kintzler, Jesse Chavez worked 1.1 innings, allowing just one hit and striking out two, lowering his ERA as a Cub to 1.16. Chavez’s work was backed up by scoreless efforts by Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop.
With the win, the Cubs improve to 79-54 while the Braves drop to 74-59 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will begin a three-game set with the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, August 31 at 6:05 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jose Quintana (11-9, 4.33 ERA). Save for the month of May, this season has not gone the way Quintana or the Cubs drew it up in Spring Training. Each month except for May, the southpaw has posted an ERA north of 4.00 and is currently sporting a 4.61 mark thus far in August. There is cause for hope, however, as Quintana has yielded just three earned runs in 10 innings over his last two starts.
Opposing Quintana on the mound will be Nick Pivetta (7-10, 4.76 ERA). Unlike the Cubs’ left-hander, Pivetta has been roughed up in his last two starts. Spanning 10.1 innings, the right-hander has allowed 11 earned runs on 15 hits while at the same time walking four batters and striking out nine.
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