With about one week left in the regular season, the Chicago Cubs continue to put pressure on themselves. What used to be a comfortable lead in the National League Central division has once again dipped to just a 1.5 game advantage over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Despite that, the Cubs were able to stave off the Chicago White Sox on Saturday, winning by a score of 8-3.
The lead has tightened in the division once again do to the Cubs losing back-to-back games at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks and White Sox by a combined score of 19-4. This month, the Diamondbacks have sported one of the worst offenses in the game of baseball, posting the 27th best wRC+ entering play on Saturday.
That number did not stop Arizona from scoring nine runs on Wednesday night, tagging Cole Hamels for seven earned runs over six innings. Following their first off-day in a month, it’s safe to say the Cubs came out flat against the White Sox on the South Side on Friday. A Daniel Murphy lead-off home run would be the only offense for the Cubs until the eighth inning as the White Sox roughed up Jose Quintana, tagging him for five runs over five innings.
What had been a strength for the Cubs — their starting rotation — over the last little bit has not been as sharp lately. That, combined with the Cubs’ continued hot-and-cold offense, has allowed the Brewers to keep nipping at their heels in the division.
With their best stopper on the mound Saturday in the form of Jon Lester, the Cubs were finally able to look like themselves against one of the worst teams in the league.
Lester, who added another All-Star selection to his resume earlier in the year, entered Saturday on a high note. His last start — an outing on September 15 against the Cincinnati Reds — extended Lester’s brilliant beginning to the month. Across 18.2 innings prior to Saturday night’s action, Lester owned a 1.45 September ERA, allowing runs in just one of his three starts.
An encouraging sign for Lester over the last few weeks has been the emergence of his strikeout pitch. Prior to the All-Star break, the southpaw struck out just 19.1 percent of the batters he faced, a number that has ticked up to 31.5 percent thus far in September. That increase has been coupled with Lester’s 5.5 percent walk rate this month which has went a long way in establishing the left-hander’s sparkling 1.33 FIP and 2.49 xFIP.
After a lengthy opening at-bat against Tim Anderson on Saturday night, Lester was able to retire the shortstop, his first of four strikeouts over his first four innings of work. Despite allowing zero walks on the evening, the White Sox were able to drive Lester’s pitch count up, getting him to throw over 80 pitches through four frames.
Like Lester has at times this season, the Cubs’ work-horse was able to grind through five innings of work, limiting the White Sox to just two earned runs (three total).
As mentioned prior, the Diamondbacks have owned one of the worst offenses in the game for much of the season and that has not changed in September. Currently with a wRC+ of 72 this month, Arizona is tied with the Cubs for the 28th worst mark in the league.
Save for two games against Arizona earlier in the week, the Cubs’ offense has been completely absent during the month of September, something that will not fly as the Brewers continue to gain ground. With that being said, the Cubs were able to scratch across just enough production to defeat the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on Saturday night.
Just three batters into the game, the two men that have been keeping the Cubs afloat this month had already made their mark. Entering play, Zobrist was sporting a .302 batting average in September coupled with a tiny 8.6 percent strikeout rate. Like the rest of the roster, however, Zobrist began play with a lackluster .711 OPS and slightly below average 92 wRC+.
Nevertheless, Zobrist and Baez have been two of the most consistent Cub hitters this season. On Saturday, those two names continued to prove that true. In the first, Zobrist clubbed his 92nd single of the year, a rocket into center field off White Sox starter Lucas Giolito. Zobrist, who now owns a .311 batting average after collecting two hits on Saturday, is right in the middle of a tight National League batting title race while at the same time posting some of the best offensive numbers of his career.
That single put a runner on base for Baez, the NL RBI leader entering play. Of Baez’s 110 RBI this season, 12 have come in September as the youngster continues to post well above average months on his way to strong NL MVP consideration. Entering play, the 25-year-old was sporting a wRC+ of 117 this month to go along with his 6.9 percent walk rate (highest of this year).
On the first pitch he saw, Baez smashed a Giolito change-up just over the fence in left field, his 34th of the season. Despite his .329 OBP on the season, Baez owns an elite .569 slugging percentage as he entered play with the sixth best mark in the major leagues. That sparkling number has beefed up Baez’s OPS, a number that now sits at .898, 101 points better than his previous career best.
Up 2-0 in the first, the Cubs would surrender a run in the bottom half of the inning on an RBI single following an infield hit and E6 on Baez. A Tim Anderson solo shot, his 20th long-ball of the season, tied the contest at two and would represent the first earned run off Lester in the ball game for the home team.
Locked in a 2-2 tie through the fourth, Lester was able to record two of his four total strikeouts in the home half of the fourth, getting Kevin Smith and Yoan Moncada looking with a runner at first base.
Like they have many times this season, the Cubs’ bats fell silent after Baez’s home run in the opening frame. Just when it seemed the Cubs would continue to come up short on offense, the top of the order once again bailed them out. A strikeout and bloop single were sandwiched around two ground outs in the Cubs’ fourth, a sign that Giolito had settled in, setting the Cubs up for another long night.
Despite that, the Cubs were able to take advantage of a White Sox team that is nowhere near fielding their ideal roster. With their top prospects still years away, the home team on Saturday was forced to field a team that would have compared to the Cubs’ 2011 lineup.
Ryan LaMarre, the White Sox starting left fielder, entered Saturday with less than 200 innings at the position in his career. That inexperience in left loomed large in the fifth inning.
For the first time in what felt like forever, the bottom portion of the Cubs’ lineup finally strung some hits together. Back-to-back singles from Kyle Schwarber and David Bote set the Cubs up with runners on the corners and the top of their order due. Entering play, Murphy was sporting a .292 batting average and .736 OPS with runners in scoring position this season, numbers that improved following a double into left field.
However, with proper defense, it’s likely Murphy’s double would have been caught by LaMarre quite easily. Instead, the ball flew right over LaMarre’s head, rolling all the way to the wall, plating the go-ahead run in the form of Schwarber.
Just a batter later, Zobrist continued his bid for Comeback Player of the Year, shooting a single up the middle, his second such knock of the night, that plated two additional runs, giving the Cubs a manageable 5-2 advantage. That lead would grow in the top half of the ninth as Albert Almora and Baez each notched an RBI to make it 7-3 ahead of an Anthony Rizzo fielder’s choice that made it an 8-3 ball game.
Zobrist, who now has 57 RBI on the year, has inched his WAR over three in 2018. A year ago, the veteran posted a 0.5 WAR and has now posted a WAR of at least three in two of his first three seasons with the Cubs.
Done after five innings and in-line for the win, Lester was lifted in favor of Carl Edwards Jr. and the Cubs’ bullpen. Now void of Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow, Joe Maddon will now be forced to get creative with his ‘pen down the stretch. On Saturday night, a combination of Edwards, Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson and Steve Cishek locked down the win for the Cubs and preserved the victory for Lester.
The southpaw’s final line looked like this: five innings, eight hits, two earned runs, zero walks and four strikeouts on 102 pitches.
With the win, the Cubs improve to 90-64 while the White Sox fall to 61-93 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will wrap-up their three-game set with the White Sox on Sunday, September 23 at 1:10 p.m. at Guaranteed Rate Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Kyle Hendricks (12-11, 3.58 ERA). Hendricks will be looking to build upon his most recent outing. On September 17, the right-hander pitched into the ninth inning, allowing just three hits and one earned run in his club’s 5-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Opposing Hendricks on the mound Sunday will be Carlos Rodon (6-6, 3.22 ERA). Rodon, 25, has taken a turn for the worst after posting back-to-back months with an ERA south of 2.00 in July and August. In four starts spanning 24 innings this month, the left-hander owns a 5.25 ERA and has walked 15 batters versus just 14 strikeouts.
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