The Cubs still have two months left to perfect the playoff formula they used against Jose Fernandez and the Miami Marlins during Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory at Wrigley Field. October is nerve-racking, cruel and random – so good luck guessing what happens in that crapshoot – but the Cubs should have as good a shot as anyone this time.
Already you can see the signs of a team that’s about to catch fire again, the way the Cubs did last summer, getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the last-place Philadelphia Phillies, staying quiet around the trade deadline and then surging toward 97 wins and into the National League Championship Series.
Jason Hammel outdueled Fernandez through six innings, allowing zero runs before turning the game over to a new-and-improved bullpen, still looking recharged and confident and no longer resembling the guy who ran out of gas during the second half of last season.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“We’re in a pretty good groove right now,” said Hammel, who set a career high with his 11th win while lowering his ERA to 3.07.
Dexter Fowler set the tone by lining the second pitch from Fernandez – a 94-mph fastball – into the right-field corner and sprinting for a leadoff triple. Fowler scored when Willson Contreras chopped a ball up the middle for an infield single, making the kind of contact the Cubs will need against power pitchers in clutch situations. Combined, the top two hitters in the lineup generated five hits, a walk, two runs scored and two RBI.
“You can see the difference in our offense as soon as Dex came back,” Hammel said. “He’s the engine of this machine. As he goes, we go.”
And as the rookie catcher with raw talent and a big personality, Contreras can be this year’s Kyle Schwarber, in his own way. As manager Joe Maddon said: “He’s going to be that little bolt of energy on a daily basis.”
Aroldis Chapman is the bolt of lightning that allows Maddon to work backwards from the ninth inning, and the electric closer finished off the Marlins with 15 pitches, 14 fastballs clocked between 99.2 and 104.4 mph on MLB.com’s Gameday, getting a strikeout, two soft groundballs and Gold Glove defense from third baseman Javier Baez.
The Marlins (57-50) might have been shut out if not for Pedro Strop’s throwing error and a ball that ricocheted off him into right field, giving J.T. Realmuto an RBI single during the two-run seventh inning. A crowd of 40,419 did not get to see Ichiro Suzuki’s 2,999th or 3,000th career hit, as the Japanese legend struck out swinging against Strop as a pinch-hitter for Fernandez. Maddon pushed the bullpen buttons, with Strop, lefty reliever Travis Wood and ex-closer Hector Rondon combining to get six outs and set the stage for Chapman.
Fowler’s hamstring injury, a worn-out lineup, a slumping rotation and an unsettled bullpen explained why the Cubs lost 15 of their last 21 games leading into the All-Star break. The Cubs are 12-6 in the second half, winning series against contenders like the Texas Rangers and New York Mets and beating pitchers such as Yu Darvish, Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon, Chris Sale and now Fernandez, plus winning another game started by Felix Hernandez.
“We’ll find out,” Maddon said. “I’ve always thought, to beat good pitching, you have to pitch better than good pitching. We’ve kind of done that against some really tough guys lately.”