For much of this 2018 season, the Chicago Cubs have ridden an up-and-down offense. During the month of May, the Cubs ranked third in the league with a 118 wRC+ as a group before falling to ninth the following month and slipping once again to 11th (106) in the month of July.
Despite that, the Cubs’ offense came alive for the second straight game, downing the Arizona Diamondbacks 9-1 on Tuesday night.
The Cubs’ often madly inconsistent offense led to this piece in late-June, but as the season has worn on, things seem to have only continued to trend in the wrong direction.
Entering play on Tuesday, the Cubs ranked 26th in wRC+ during the month of September, three points ahead of their opponent at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks. Additionally, Chicago sat in 27th with a .357 slugging percentage and 25th with a lackluster .130 ISO. Those numbers, while solidly under the expectations fans have for this team, were actually improved due to their 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks a day prior. In that game, the Cubs enjoyed two, two-run blasts, one from Javier Baez and the other from Kris Bryant. Baez’s long ball “snapped” a three game stretch for the youngster without a home run. For Bryant, that was his first home run since July 20 and provided fans and Cubs brass alike with a positive sign moving forward for their young slugger has he continues to battle injuries this season.
Despite their less-than-stellar numbers this month, the Cubs once again came to play against a Diamondbacks team that is quickly fading in the postseason picture.
With a spot-starter on the mound in Matt Andriese on Tuesday, the best Diamondbacks’ management could hope for would be four innings or around 60 pitches. Well, the right-hander ended his night with 61 pitches, the only problem was he failed to crack the third inning.
That was made possible by the Cubs once again working solid at-bat after solid at-bat, a principle that Joe Maddon has preached for much of the season. Just three batters into the game, it was clear what the Cubs’ game plan would be against Andriese. Knowing the right-hander would be on a limited pitch count, the Cubs did not waste any time in getting him out of the game.
A Daniel Murphy single kicked off the Cubs first inning before Bryant struck out swinging. Batting third on the evening ahead of Baez, Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate, a guy always good for a grinding at-bat, no matter the pitcher. Seventeen pitches and an E2 later, Rizzo lined out to a drawn in middle infielder with Murphy standing on third base.
Of Andriese’s 61 pitches on Tuesday, almost 28 percent of them were to Rizzo. No doubt frustrated by Rizzo’s long at-bat, the Diamondbacks’ right-hander fell behind Baez 2-0 before leaving a cookie in the middle of the zone. For much of the season, Baez has feasted on mistakes in the zone. Entering play, the youngster had made contact on 82.5 percent of the pitches he swung at in the strike zone. That number is the second highest of his career and up almost five percentage points from his mark in 2017.
In the first inning on Tuesday, Baez continued to supplement that number, taking a mistake pitch and driving it over 400-feet into center field, giving the Cubs an early 2-0 lead.
After sending five batters to the plate in the first inning, the Cubs bested that mark in the second by sending six men to the dish. Doubles by Jason Heyward and Ian Happ sandwiched around a strikeout plated the Cubs third run of the game.
That RBI double off the bat of Happ represented the youngster’s seventh hit of the month as he entered play with a .167 batting average since the calendar flipped to September. Despite his wRC+ of 89 this month, Happ owned a .278 ISO prior to his second inning double on Tuesday as five of those six aforementioned hits had gone for extra bases (two doubles, one triple and two home runs).
Happ did not have to wait around on the bases for a long period of time like so many of his teammates have been forced to do this season. With two outs and a runner in scoring position this season, the Cubs have hit just .215 with a .343 slugging percentage and sOPS-plus of 89. That means the Cubs have been 11 percent worse than league average in that split this season, a number that did not bode well for Murphy as he stepped to the plate following Happ’s double. Despite those lackluster numbers, the veteran sent a screaming home run into the right field stands on an 0-2 count, giving the Cubs a 5-0 lead. Additionally, Murphy’s home run represented the Cubs fourth two-run home run in 11 innings after they scored just five runs in their three games prior to Monday’s win.
The Cubs did not take the final seven innings off offensively as they batted against the Diamondbacks’ bullpen. Entering play, Arizona’s bullpen was sporting the 24th best ERA (3.54) in the league, a number that has sat at 7.26 in September (worst in baseball). Three innings after Murphy’s home run, the Cubs were able to break through against that soft Arizona bullpen.
Murphy reached base for the third time on Monday, adding a hit-by-pitch to his game resume in the fifth inning. A double by Bryant sat Rizzo up for an RBI opportunity with runners on second and third. Rizzo, who entered play with a .291 batting average with runners in scoring position this season, lined a ball through the right side of the infield, a knock that plated two more runs, and pushed the visiting team’s lead to 7-1 over the Diamondbacks.
After sporting a .149 batting average through the end of April, Rizzo has been hitting at an MVP-caliber level. Since the start of the second half, Rizzo owns a .325 batting average, .984 OPS and 161 wRC+. Rizzo’s slow start had many people wondering if this year would finally be the down season the slugger has avoided thus far in his career. Instead, with those two RBI, Rizzo now has 95 on the year, coupled with 24 home runs and a .277 batting average.
Without his sluggish first half, it is not unreasonable to believe Rizzo could once again be in the middle of an MVP-caliber season.
Staked to a six-run lead that would grow to eight runs with productive outs by Willson Contreras and Albert Almora in the fifth, Mike Montgomery continued to keep Arizona off the board. In his last three outings, the southpaw has not been impressive, allowing eight earned runs over 12.1 innings. While still rather solid performances, Montgomery had yet to go deeper than 4.1 innings since making his return from the DL in mid-August. On Tuesday night, however, Montgomery finally turned a quality outing.
Right off the bat, Montgomery had his change-up working, striking out A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt in the first inning with the pitch. As the night wore on, Montgomery only seemed to get stronger as he struck out two more in the second frame and an additional two in the fourth inning. All told, the southpaw struck out eight batters on the evening, setting a season-high for the 29-year-old.
Montgomery’s increased strike out rate on Tuesday largely kept the Diamondbacks off-balance. While the Cubs scored in three of the first five innings, Arizona could only muster a solo home run in the home half of the second inning. By limiting the Diamondbacks to just one run, Montgomery continued his solid performance as a starting pitcher this season. Entering play, the southpaw owned a 3.48 ERA as a starter in Yu Darvish‘s stead. That solid effort, along with the addition of Cole Hamels, has kept the Cubs afloat in an injury riddled season. Montgomery’s final line looked like this: six innings, four hits, one earned run, one walk and eight strikeouts on 94 pitches.
Following Montgomery’s exit, the Cubs bullpen pitched three solid innings, capping off the Cubs 9-1 win over the Diamondbacks.
With the win, the Cubs improve to 89-62 while Arizona drops to 78-74 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will wrap-up their three-game set with the Diamondbacks on Wednesday, September 19 at 8:40 p.m. at Chase Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Cole Hamels (9-9, 3.67 ERA). Hamels has been a savior for the Cubs this season, posting a 0.69 ERA across 39 innings during the month of August. While not quite that level, Hamels has been solid through his three outings in the month of September. Spanning 18.1 innings, the southpaw owns a 3.44 ERA, having allowed seven earned runs on 16 hits while striking out 17 batters.
Opposing Hamels on the mound Wednesday will be Robbie Ray (5-2, 4.14 ERA). Ray, 26, seems to have rebounded nicely following his 6.12 ERA in July. Since then, the left-hander has posted a 3.24 mark in August and a 2.04 ERA thus far in September (three starts).
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