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Cubs: Almora Hits First Career Grand Slam in 8-4 Win Over Phillies

Albert Almora hit his first career grand slam, helping to propel the Cubs to an 8-4 victory over the Phillies on Wednesday. Daniel Shepard has the details of the win here.

Hitting with runners in scoring position. When a team is successful in this area, they often find it easy to win games and accomplish a great deal within a season. However, when the opposite happens, it can be maddening for fans of that franchise and the front office alike as they are relegated to watch the team flounder in big situations, something fans of the Chicago Cubs have experienced.

Over the last handful of years, fans of the Cubs have seen their beloved franchise bask in the success of hitting with runners in scoring position, but more often, have seen them struggle. Even so, success in that department does not always create a 1:1 success rate for the team and vise versa. In 2016, the Cubs finished 21st in the league with a .252 batting average with runners in scoring position while at the same time posting the 14th best wRC-plus (100) in baseball, sitting exactly at league average in that split.

Of course, we all know the Cubs completed that campaign with 103 wins, winning the World Series in seven games over the Cleveland Indians.

This season, even with their lackluster 2-7 start to the season, the Cubs posted some of the best numbers in baseball during run-scoring opportunities. From Opening Day through May 5 (a Sunday night win over the St. Louis Cardinals), the Cubs amassed a .284 batting average in that split, good enough for sixth best in the game. Their 137 wRC-plus put them atop the rankings for that date range, as the Cubs found a good combination of fly balls and ground balls in big situations.

With runners in scoring position prior to May 6, the Cubs were second in fly ball rate (42.5 percent) and 10th in HR/FB rate (15.3 percent) while at the same time ranking 18th in ground ball rate at 41.5 percent. Perhaps because of that batted ball profile, the Cubs found themselves with the fourth best slugging percentage with runners in scoring position prior to May 6, maintaining the best OPS in that department across the same time frame.

While the Cubs started the 2019 season with a 2-7 mark, they finished a seven-game win streak with their 13-5 win over the Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball on May 5. In that contest, the Cubs went 6-for-10 with runners in scoring position, leaving just two men on base while banging out 12 hits, scoring six runs in the eighth inning.

For whatever reason (perhaps due to the finicky nature of hitting in the game’s biggest moments), the Cubs have continued to trend downward in that RISP department since that clinical win over the Cardinals more than two weeks ago.

Since May 6 (a 6-5 loss to the Miami Marlins in which the Cubs went 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position), the Cubs have posted some of the worst situational hitting numbers in the league.

In 102 at-bats spanning a little more than two weeks and prior to play on Wednesday, the Cubs have garnered just 17 hits, racking up a paltry .167 batting average with runners in scoring position. For perspective, the next closest team is the Baltimore Orioles who own a .179 average as the Marlins are sporting a mark 20 points higher than the Cubs over the last half-month.

To make matters worse, the Cubs also own the second lowest wRC-plus in that split (45) since May 6, posting a .571 OPS along the way. Just because the Cubs are suddenly struggling in that department does not mean they are getting out of their approach. During this stretch, the Cubs have racked up the second best strikeout rate (14.4 percent) in that split while at the same time posting the third best walk rate, also standing at 14.4 percent.

Instead, the Cubs have began pounding the baseball into the ground in the biggest situations, racking up a 52.9 percent ground ball since the first Monday in May. Conversely, the Cubs’ fly ball rate with runners in scoring position has fell to 18th in baseball at just 34.5 percent as Chicago finds itself sandwiched between the Marlins and Kansas City Royals in that department.

Even with their lackluster numbers with runners in scoring position of late, the Cubs are right around the middle of the pack with a .251 batting average (20th) and 111 wRC-plus (11th) this season, nearing the numbers they posted in 2016.

Since May 5, the Cubs have recorded a 9-6 record after walking off the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night. That game marked the third contest in a row that was decided by one run, contests in which the Cubs own a 2-1 record. Nevertheless, of their six losses during this stretch, three have been decided by one run, games in which the Cubs went a combined 5-18 (.277) with runners in scoring position. While that’s a solid number, one additional hit with men on base very well could have changed the outcome of one of those contests.

On Tuesday night, the Cubs went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, held hit-less until Javier Baez‘s RBI game-winning single in the ninth inning.

Even with their numbers in that statistic slipping of late, the Cubs are still finding ways to win baseball games, one of the marks of a successful team, one that could go far in both the regular and post-season. If that is the case, the Cubs cannot continue to bat under .200 with runners in scoring position, because it will eventually catch up with them.

On Wednesday, with Cole Hamels facing his old team for the first time in his career, the Cubs were only able to pound out two hits with runners in scoring position, but walked away with the victory due to the nature of those knocks.

Before that, however, let’s get to Hamels’ first career start against the Phillies. Making the start against the franchise that he won a World Series with in 2008, Hamels needed 33 pitches to work around two doubles and a free pass in the first inning. Still, Hamels could not escape the frame cleanly, yielding a run on J.T. Realmuto‘s ground rule double into right-center with two outs.

Thankfully for the Cubs, the ivy growing on the outfield bricks ate the baseball, limiting the Phillies to just one tally in the opening frame, a score they would add to in the third. This time, the Phillies’ run scoring came on softly hit baseballs, as Philadelphia plated two runs with two ground balls that found outfield grass, running the score to 3-0 in favor of the visiting club.

Due to increased traffic from his nine hits and two walks allowed, Hamels was carrying a high pitch count into the fourth inning. Even then, Hamels permitted the Phillies to load the bases with back-to-back one out singles and a two out walk before inducing a fly ball to get out of the frame.

All told, Hamels was not necessarily wild, as evident by his nine hits allowed. Instead, the veteran had a tough time finishing batters once the count moved to 0-2. By the third inning, Hamels had already racked up 11 0-2 counts, but exited the game with only six strikeouts, two of which came in that third frame.

Of his 99 pitches on the evening, Hamels garnered 18 swinging strikes, six with his change-up and another six with his curve-ball. Additionally, Hamels racked up 15 called strikes, six coming on his four-seam fastball and another four on his cutter. Even with much of the Phillies’ contact on the ground, they still got to the veteran, helping to push his pitch count near 100 after four innings.

Because of that, Joe Maddon was forced to pull the southpaw after just four innings, taking him out of contention for the victory. Hamels’ final line looked like this: four innings, nine hits, three earned runs, two walks and six strikeouts on the aforementioned 99 pitches.

Offensively, as touched on above, the Cubs needed just two big hits to gain their advantage on Wednesday night at Wrigley. Trailing 3-0 in the third, the Cubs put the first two runners on base thanks to back-to-back singles from Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant. Of the bloop variety, Bryant’s single moved runners to first and second for Anthony Rizzo.

Entering play, Rizzo was sitting on 11 home runs, having all but rebounded from his slow start at the plate. Prior to his first at-bat on Wednesday, Rizzo was slashing .256/.378/.531/.909 for the season. If it holds, Rizzo’s OPS would be the third highest of his career and just 19 points off his .928 mark that he posted in 2016.

Well, in the third inning, Rizzo added to that number, crushing an offering from Phillies starter Cole Irvin deep into the night to right field. Off the top of the scoreboard in right, Rizzo’s blast exited his bat at 110.5 MPH and traveled 437-feet. Without the scoreboard in its way, there is no doubt Rizzo’s 12th home run of the season would have stretched further than that mark, but nevertheless, it tied the game at three.

With Hamels pushed from the game after escaping a fourth inning jam, the Cubs once again knocked on the door. A one out double by Bryant paved the way for the Cubs to load the bases with two away after two free passes encompassed a strikeout. In a key spot, Albert Almora stepped to the plate, just the batter the Cubs wanted in that situation.

Since May 4, spanning 64 plate appearances, Almora has posted some of the best offensive numbers of his career, turning in a .317/.339/.567/.905 slash line with three home runs and eight RBI to his credit. Additionally, Almora has racked up an outstanding .250 ISO and 140 wRC-plus (40 percent better than league average) while at the same time posting a responsible strikeout rate of 12.5 percent.

Across that same time span, Albert has amassed a hard contact rate of just 31.5 percent and a less-than-stellar 25.5 percent fly ball rate. Nevertheless, the Cubs’ outfielder also put together a 23.1 percent HR/FB rate, meaning that when Almora puts the baseball in the air, there is a good chance it’s going to fly out.

On Wednesday, with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Almora did just that, blasting his first career grand slam to straight away center field. Off the bat at 103.7 MPH, Almora’s fifth home run of the season traveled 419-feet, giving the Cubs a 7-3 lead.

In the matter of two innings, the Cubs scored seven straight runs, flipping the contest in their favor. With those two blasts as anchors, the Cubs finished Wednesday’s game 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position, not a strong showing on paper but an excellent result considering what those two hits were.

Staked to a 7-3 advantage, the Cubs maintained control of the game for the remaining four innings as Baez launched his 12 home run of the season to center field in the seventh inning. For good measure, the Phillies responded with a solo home run of their own, capping the scoring at 8-4 in favor of the Cubs.

With their win on Wednesday, the Cubs move to 29-18 on the season while the Phillies drop to 28-21 on the season.

Next Up for the Cubs

The Cubs will continue their four-game series with the Phillies on Thursday at 1:20 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be left-hander Jon Lester (3-2, 2.09 ERA). Across four starts this month, Lester has been absolutely brilliant, turning in a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings spanning four starts. While the southpaw allowed five earned runs over just 4.1 innings in his last outing against the Washington Nationals, those marks represented the only earned runs allowed by the veteran since he made his return from the IL on April 25.

Additionally, during this recent run, Lester has walked just three batters versus 23 strikeouts while allowing just one home run.

Opposing Lester on the mound Thursday will be right-hander Aaron Nola (4-0, 4.47 ERA). In his last outing, against the Colorado Rockies on May 18, the 25-year-old allowed one earned run on eight hits while striking out 12 versus just one walk. Overall, Nola has posted a 2.61 ERA across 20.2 innings during the month of May.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports  

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