With Opening Day upon us, the Chicago Cubs rolled into Texas looking to put their disappointing 2018 campaign behind them. A lackluster second half that saw many Cub hitters dip significantly in production allowed the Milwaukee Brewers to catch-up in the National League Central and eventually over-take the defending division champs in Game 163.
A 73 degree first pitch and blue sky in Arlington set the scene for what many hope is a turn-around season for the Cubs.
Facing a Texas Rangers team that will likely not do much winning in 2019 seemed to be the perfect way to kick-off a revenge season for Chicago. Before action began on Thursday, Joe Maddon unveiled a lineup that featured both David Bote (second base) and Mark Zagunis (left field) with Kyle Schwarber starting on the bench against lefty Mike Minor.
Zagunis, who beat out Ian Happ for a spot on the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, hit ninth as he made the first Opening Day roster of his career.
Looking for a different result from what transpired in the second half of last season, the Cubs focused more on situational hitting in the off-season and banked on bounce back seasons from some of their biggest stars.
One game into the 2019 season, however, it looks like some of the brightest stars from last season’s roster will continue shining into the new year.
Up until the fourth inning on Thursday, the Cubs’ offense had done little to prove things would be different in 2019 even after falling behind 2-0 on an Elvis Andrus home run in the third inning. Minor, who owns a career ground ball rate of 36.7 percent including a 34.4 percent mark last season, induced six the first time through Chicago’s order.
Three of those ground balls came in the second inning as Willson Contreras, David Bote and Ben Zobrist all produced an out on the ground. That trend continued into the third inning as Jason Heyward rolled a ball through the middle of the infield for the Cubs’ first base hit of the season. He was quickly cut down on a 6-3 double play off the bat of Zagunis.
Two additional ground balls in the fourth inning ran Minor’s count to eight through the first portion of Thursday’s contest, a high amount for a pitcher with a career fly ball rate of 41.6 percent.
It was after that eighth ground ball, a roller back to the pitcher off Anthony Rizzo‘s bat, that the Cubs’ offense seemed to take a turn. Interjecting his name into the box score, Javier Baez continued to show just how far he has come in his development at the big league level.
In the first inning, Baez took a border line pitch to run the count full before rolling out to the third baseman. While that at-bat produced nothing more than a 105.2 MPH ground out, seeing Baez take a close pitch without even flinching is a good sign for the youngster.
Just three innings later, the good signs for Baez continued to roll in as the runner-up in the National League MVP voting last season produced the first run and home run for the Cubs in 2019. Baez, who mashed a career-best 34 last season, was able to flip a curve-ball from Minor into the left field seats, cutting the Rangers’ lead in half.
According to Baseball Savant who has really cool tables with really cool statistics, Baez’s home run came off his bat at 103.5 MPH with a launch angle of 25 degree, the optimal metrics for a dinger that has been deemed “a barrel.”
Despite a Contreras strikeout to end the Cubs fourth, Baez’s home run seemed to lift the overall offensive mood on Thursday. We can say that because in the fifth inning, the Cubs sent 10 men to the plate starting with Bote who reached on a hit-by-pitch.
Three hits later (single, infield single, double), the Cubs grabbed the lead, pulling ahead 3-2. Those back-to-back singles came off the bats of Zobrist and Heyward, the latter of which tied the contest.
The tying-breaking hit came courtesy of the new man in the lineup, Zagunis. With a 103.1 MPH exit velocity, Zagunis was able to reach second base on his liner through the middle of the infield, setting the Cubs up with runners at second and third and the lead.
With still no one out in the frame, Minor was able to strikeout Albert Almora out before inducing another ground ball, this time off the bat of Kris Bryant. Bryant’s ground ball, which resulted in a 6-3 put out, pushed across the Cubs’ fourth run of the game, making it 4-2 Cubs.
Minor’s second walk of the game got him pulled in the fifth inning ahead of Baez whom he would have been facing for the third time. Instead of Minor, Jesse Chavez (the former Cub) drew the assignment of facing Baez with two runners on base.
Chavez, who no doubt just wanted to get a feel for the game in his first action of the year, pumped a fastball over the heart of the plate, a pitch Baez did not miss.
The 90 MPH offering from Chavez was turned around by Baez and cranked 411-feet to right field for a three-run blast, putting the Cubs up by a score of 7-2. Baez’s second blast of the evening topped 110 MPH off the bat at a launch angle of 20 degrees, producing a .920 xBA according to Baseball Savant.
With his second home run of the day, Baez notched his second, third and fourth RBI of the game, scoring an additional two to account for six of the Cubs’ 12 total runs on Thursday.
Already up five runs, the Cubs pushed two more across in the top half of the sixth inning, one on an Almora RBI infield hit and another on a bases loaded walk by Rizzo, making the score 9-2 in favor of the visiting team.
The Cubs tacked on their tenth run of the game in the seventh on a Heyward ground out, one inning ahead of a Bryant home run.
Not to up-staged by Baez, Bryant got in on the home run party Thursday, mashing an opposite field, two-run shot on a fastball that was down-and-away. According to Baseball Savant, Bryant’s blast in the eighth came with an exit velocity of 104.6 MPH with a launch angle of 24 degree, producing a .940 xBA.
Even though that home run represented Bryant’s only hit on the evening, for fans to see an opposite field shot from a guy that missed 60 games with a shoulder injury in 2018 gives good vibes to this season.
With the score 12-2 in favor of the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Rangers where able to add a two-run home run, making it 12-4, a score that would represent the final tally on Thursday.
On the mound, Jon Lester was his usual self. After amassing a 3.32 ERA and earning an All-Star Game nod last season, the left-hander was able to pick up right where he left off. Two Texas base runners reached in the home half of the first but Lester was able to get a ground ball to escape the inning before sitting the Rangers down in order in the second.
The only hiccup on Lester’s line came on the aforementioned two-run shot by Andrus on the third inning. Other than that, Lester was able to cruise through six very solid innings.
His final line looked like this: six innings, four hits, two earned runs, two walks and three strikeouts on 98 pitches.
With the win, the Cubs move to a perfect 1-0 on the season while the Rangers drop to 0-1.
Bryant – 1-for-4, one run scored, one walk, three RBI.
Rizzo – 1-for-2, one run, one RBI, three walks.
Baez – 2-for-5, two runs scored, four RBI.
Bote – 2-for-4, two runs scored.
Zobrist – 1-for-2, two runs scored, two walks.
Heyward – 2-for-5, one run scored, one RBI.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Rangers on Saturday, March 30 at 7:05 p.m. at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Yu Darvish. Darvish, who will be facing his former team, is finally healthy after undergoing elbow surgery last September.
Limited to just 40 innings in the first year of his six-year, $126 million mega-deal, Darvish is a great candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in 2019. After a lackluster 2018 campaign, Darvish’s comeback begins on Saturday.
Taking the ball for the Rangers will be right-hander Edinson Volquez. Volquez, 35, missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2017. Prior to his injury, the veteran owned a 4.19 ERA across 17 starts for the Miami Marlins two seasons ago.
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