It took the Cubs a grand total of two pitches to light up the scoreboard on Sunday, and they barely slowed their torrid pace all afternoon.
Dexter Fowler drilled a 1-0 pitch to the left field bleachers, the Cubs tacked on four more homers throughout the game and starting pitcher Jason Hammel picked up a badly needed win as the Cubs rolled over the Braves, 9-3, on a gorgeous afternoon at Wrigley. The win — the Cubs’ 19th in their last 23 games — gave them their fourth four-game series sweep of the season, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 1945.
In sweeping Atlanta, Hammel improved his record to 7-5 and kept the ball down on a day when the wind was gusting out to left.
“I thought (Hammel) was really sharp, much better command of everything,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of his starter, who hadn’t pitched into the seventh inning since July 3. “I know he’s leaving the ballpark today feeling pretty good about himself.”
From a broader perspective though, the Cubs maintained their distance in the wild-card chase thanks to a 3-for-4 effort from Kris Bryant, who had two homers, four runs scored and three RBIs. His first-inning blast to right compounded the damage already done by Fowler. The Pirates, now up 2 1/2 games over the Cubs, host the Giants on Sunday night. The Giants currently trail the Cubs by 5 1/2 games for the second NL wild-card spot.
“Sometimes you get the wind blowing out and you get it in the basket, sometimes it doesn’t even get to the outfield,” Bryant said. “It was a good day to hit. (Opposite field), that’s more the swing I like. I like to hit balls to right field. That (first-inning) pitch was actually inside so that’s even more encouraging for me.”
The victory also moved the Cubs (71-51) to a season-high 20 games over .500 and improved their home record to 38-26. Following Monday’s make-up game against Cleveland, the Cubs will have spent their last 19 days in the Windy City before heading to California.
Maddon spoke pregame about how Chicago was a destination city that opposing teams circle on their road trips.
“I think teams do feel a certain amount of energy by being here, the opposition,” he said, before recalibrating. “At the end of the day we come here and we have to feed of off our fans, and I think we’re doing that right now. I still believe it’s a tremendous home-field advantage.”
As has been the case all series, there was no shortage of energy on Sunday as Hammel won his first home game since April 27. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Cubs’ offense did their damage early to both jolt the crowd and give Hammel a cushion. The Cubs’ bullpen had worked overtime throughout the first three games of the series, and Hammel at least got them to the seventh with eight strikeouts and just two earned runs in the process. Effective relief pitching from Clayton Richard, Jason Motte and James Russell helped close out the game.
After Fowler hit his career-high 14th homer of the year in the first, Bryant's two-run, opposite-field homer settled halfway up the right-field bleachers to make it 3-0. An inning later Kyle Schwarber hit his 11th of the year, and by the end of the third, Miguel Montero had crushed the Braves’ hopes with another three-run shot.
“I like the idea that our guys are staying inside the ball. Are we playing the elements? I don’t know,” Maddon said of the latest windy home stand. “Because Schwarber can hit the ball (opposite field), Rizzo can, Montero definitely does. Now Bryant does also. So it’s part of their game. I think that’s why this group of guys are such great hitters and the reason why they see so many pitches is that they will use the other field.”
It was Montero’s second home run in as many games after knocking the game-winner on Saturday night, and Bryant added another in the sixth to dead center. The Cubs’ 51 home runs since the All-Star break lead the National League, and four of their first five hits on Sunday left the yard.
The Cubs chased Braves starting pitcher Matt Wisler after just 2 2/3 innings with a line of seven earned runs, four homers and three walks to his name.
Even Hammel contributed to the offensive outburst with a bases-loaded RBI single to the left in the fifth inning. All told, it was significantly more than the Cubs would need.
Shortstop Addison Russell left the game early with tightness in his groin, according to Maddon, and might not play on Monday vs. the Indians.