Game 162. For the last two seasons, the final game of the year has had little impact on the Chicago Cubs’ overall season. This year, however, after going 5-5 in their last 10 games, game 162 could not have a larger impact on the Cubs.
After winning 6-5 over the lowly Detroit Tigers on Saturday, the Milwaukee Brewers ran their winning streak to six games and forced a dead-lock atop the National League Central division. At 94-67 with one game remaining on the schedule, both the Cubs and Brewers took the field, just minutes apart, trending in opposite directions.
Since August 31, the Cubs’ offense ranks 26th in baseball with a 76 wRC+, ahead of teams solidly out of the postseason picture. In contrast, the Brewers entered play ranked seventh across that same time span with a team wRC+ of 108, a feat largely due to the outstanding play of Christian Yelich, a performance that has all but locked up the NL MVP Award in his favor.
Despite a complete lackluster effort by the offense for much of the month, the Cubs still find themselves in the thick of October baseball, win or not on Sunday. Already locked into a Wild Card berth, both the Cubs and Brewers took the field looking to lock up the division title against teams with nothing to lose.
For the Brewers, the Tigers have been eliminated from the postseason for quite a long time while the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cubs opponent on Sunday) played in just their third game since 2011 with nothing on the line.
Early, it seemed the Cubs would give away the division and settle for their second Wild Card appearance in four years. Taking the ball for the Cubs in perhaps the biggest game of the year was Mike Montgomery. Montgomery, who closed out the 2016 World Series Game 7 victory, would not have been in this position if things had worked out as planned. Yu Darvish, the Cubs $126 million off-season investment, threw just 40 innings this season after going down with shoulder issues earlier this year.
His replacement in the rotation for much of this year has been Montgomery. Across a career high 19 starts prior to Sunday evening, the southpaw owned a 3.68 ERA and had held opposing hitters to a .268/.327/.385 slash line.
Quickly, it seemed likely Montgomery would have back-to-back lackluster outings after allowing five runs over four innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 25. On the first pitch of the game, Matt Carpenter looked to have yet another home run against the Cubs. His shot into right field fell just short of the basket, landing instead in the ivy, resulting in a double to lead-off the game.
The Cardinals would cash in on that early scoring opportunity. Playing like they were down a run late, St. Louis was able to move the runner over to third with a sac-bunt ahead of a Paul DeJong single that gave the visiting club a 1-0 lead. Just two batters later, Montgomery continued to buck his rather solid 3.00 first inning ERA this season, allowing a single into center field. A single itself would not have scored the runner from first, but a Jason Heyward error did allow the run to score, pushing the Cardinals’ lead to 2-0 early.
Thankfully for the Cubs, the Cardinal damage came early enough in the game for them to come back like they have so many times this season. Continuing their trend from one game ago, the Cubs came out of the dugout hitting rockets. Like Saturday’s 2-1 loss, those rockets did not result in runs on the score board, at least in the first inning.
Following a Daniel Murphy lead-off walk, Ben Zobrist lined a ball into right field that held up just enough to be caught. Just two batters later, and with a runner on second base, Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate looking for his 100th RBI of the season.
One month into 2018, Rizzo was in the middle of an awfully deep slump. At the end of April, the Cubs slugger was slashing just .149/.259/.189 on the season with just one home run. Since then, Rizzo has been in the thick of the Cubs’ offense production, posting a .278/.362/.378 September line prior to play on Sunday. Rizzo’s second half surge has pushed his offensive numbers back into the range fans expect from the lefty. While unlikely to reach 30 home runs for the first time since the 2013 season, Rizzo has logged 100 RBI in each of the last four seasons, dating back to 2015.
That RBI did not come in the first inning, a run that would have cut the Cardinals’ lead in half. Instead, Rizzo saved up his milestone RBI for a huge spot not much later in the game.
Down by two runs in the second, the Cubs’ bats gave zero impression of breaking out of their September slumber. A Kris Bryant ground out, out of the five-spot in the batting order, gave way to back-to-back strikeouts of Heyward and Kyle Schwarber. Those punch outs, one looking and one swinging made it seem like Jack Flaherty (the Cardinals starter on Sunday) would roll over the home team’s lineup.
With Milwaukee leading their must-win game, the Cubs finally figured out Flaherty’s slider the second time through the batting order. Willson Contreras, who owns a .137 ISO this season after posting back-to-back seasons with marks over .200, kicked the inning off with yet another rocket off the bat. Even though his line drive into right field was tracked down, the remainder of the Cubs’ lineup was finally able to pick up the slack left by the struggling catcher.
A Victor Caratini strikeout flipped the order over and flipped on the power switch for the home team. With just a .122 ISO as a team this month, the Cubs own the third lowest mark in the majors over that time span. However, following the third inning, that number is likely to increase.
Entering play, the Cubs were sporting a .244/.330/.378 slash line as a team with two outs and no one on base. At a 106 sOPS-plus, the Cubs were just six percent above league average in that split prior to their third inning outburst on Sunday.
Back-to-back extra base hits, a Murphy double and Zobrist triple (yeah, triple), plated the Cubs first run of the game and second in 11.2 innings over their last two games. Just stopping there would have handed the Brewers a division title, blowing a lead the Cubs have held onto for much of the season.
Instead of shutting down like we have seen this team do far too many times this season, the Cubs kicked into another gear offensively. Fans and members of the media have heard the same narrative from Joe Maddon and Cubs management for the majority of the season, the one that states the offense is on the verge of breaking out and the talents of the members in the order should prevail. Well, when it mattered most, the Cubs once again stepped up in the clutch, helping to cement their standing on the final day of the 162 game MLB schedule.
Down a run with Javier Baez at the plate and runner on third, Flaherty fed Baez a diet of sliders, throwing three in a five-pitch at-bat. However, it was on a fastball that Flaherty uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Zobrist to sprint home from third, tying the game at two.
Still with two outs, Baez finished off a free pass, spitting on a Flaherty slider and once again showing off his improved maturity at the plate. That walk would loom large as Rizzo doubled Baez home with a two-out, two-strike double into the right-center field gap, plating the Cubs third run of the game and Rizzo’s 100th RBI of the season.
The Cubs would plate another run in the frame, this time on a Heyward single into right, making the lead 4-2 and finishing off a huge come back inning for the home team. In that inning, the Cubs sent nine batters to the plate and recorded a double, triple, walk, double, walk and single with two away, continuing their trend of putting together big innings when it matters most.
Already at two, the Cubs added to the lead multiple times throughout the remaining six innings. Trying to keep up with the Brewers who plated double-digit runs in their defeat over the Tigers, the Cubs added four runs in the home half of the fifth. Three straight hits from the Cubs three through five hitters accounted for two of those additional runs, with the big blow coming on a Bryant RBI double, a ball that was pulled into the left field corner.
After missing much of two months with shoulder soreness, Bryant’s double in the fifth continued to salvage his lost season. That extra base hit plated Bryant’s 51st and 52nd RBI of the year, inching his WAR closer to 2.0, after posting three straight years with a mark at or above six.
Just two batters after Bryant’s game-breaking double, Contreras did something almost as rare as a blue moon. Through Contreras’ first two seasons in a big league uniform, the 26-year-old mashed 33 home runs and collected 35 doubles. This season, however, the back-stop was sitting on just nine long-balls and a .387 slugging percentage prior to play on Sunday.
Those numbers ticked up in the fifth as Contreras slugged his first home run since August 1, a two-run shot just over the basket in left field, giving the Cubs a suddenly commanding 8-2 advantage.
With four innings left in the contest, the Cubs were able to maintain their six-run cushion, pushing across two runs in the bottom half of the sixth in response to the Cardinals two-run top half of the inning. All told, the Cubs plated 10 runs for the first time since August 25 while banging out five hits in eight chances with runners in scoring position through the first two-thirds of the ball game.
This game was a must-win for the Cubs if they hoped to preserve their chances of locking up the division title. Unfortunately, their lackluster effort recently and a hot streak by the Brewers has pulled the two teams into a dead-lock that persisted through Sunday’s action.
With the win, the Cubs finish the 162-game schedule with a 95-67 record while the Cardinals finish their season with an 88-74 mark.
Next Up For The Cubs
To break the evenness atop the Central, the Cubs and Brewers will face-off in a one-game playoff for the division title at 12:09 p.m at Wrigley Field on Monday. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jose Quintana (13-11, 4.09 ERA). Quintana will likely finish the season as a just above average starting pitcher as he owns a 105 ERA-plus currently.
While not an outstanding effort this season, Quintana has continued his dominance of the Brewers in 2018. For his career, the southpaw has racked up 67.1 innings against the Brewers, posting a 1.60 ERA across those frames. Additionally, the left-hander has held Milwaukee hitters to a .169/.225/.280 slash line over the course of his career.
It’s important to remember, the Cubs are already locked in to a postseason berth no matter what happens on Monday. With a loss, the Cubs would host the Wild Card Game at Wrigley Field on Tuesday against the losers of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies division deciding game.
A win locks up the division title for the third straight season and would have the Cubs playing Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday, sending the Brewers into the do-or-die Wild Card Game, a result that would give Chicago two days off before their postseason begins.
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