Cubs

Cahill starts rally, Baez blasts walk-off homer as Cubs sweep Nationals

Cahill starts rally, Baez blasts walk-off homer as Cubs sweep Nationals

If the Cubs are going to get late-inning rallies started by relief pitchers and walk-off homers to cap five-hour, extra-inning marathons, well maybe they really won’t ever lose again.

In a season full of unlikely heroes, Trevor Cahill and Javier Baez turned in two of the game’s biggest swings Sunday, helping lead the Cubs to a 4-3 win in 13 innings over the visiting Washington Nationals that completed a four-game sweep, stretched the team’s winning streak to seven and went down as victory No. 24 just 30 games into this season with World Series expectations.

“Our guys are in that game to the last drop. Long game like that, they’ve been playing well, you could just mail it in. But our guys are into that game till the very last drop,” manager Joe Maddon said. “To the last moment, everybody was there to win that game, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Cahill came in to relieve Jake Arrieta after the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner needed 100 pitches to make it through just five innings. And while his relief work was critical — the first of four bullpen pitchers that strung together eight scoreless frames — it was his seventh-inning at-bat that loomed largest.

With the Cubs trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Maddon opted to let Cahill hit rather than use his last remaining bench player. In a move that seemed doomed to fail, Cahill smashed an infield single off Oliver Perez because with this Cubs team, of course he did.

Dexter Fowler was hit by a pitch, and Jason Heyward — mired in a lengthy slump — laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over ahead of Kris Bryant’s base hit to center field that tied the score at 3.

“When I got to third and (third-base coach Gary Jones) was telling me all the stuff like ‘freeze on a liner, ‘if it’s hit to this guy, go ahead’ and all this other stuff, I was confused. I was like, ‘Just don’t get thrown out at third,’” Cahill said. “(Bryant) had a good base hit — and I froze, I think — and I scored and Fowler scored. It tied the game up, and I think it shifted the momentum a little bit.”

The score stayed there for some time, though, and while Heyward nearly ended the game when he was thrown out at home plate in the 11th, it was Baez who delivered the game-winning hit, a solo home run he smashed into the left-field bleachers to put an end to a Mother’s Day marathon.

“I was trying to get on base and get a good pitch to hit,” Baez said. “That guy throws hard. After the second strike, I sat on the slider because they’ve been throwing it to me this series a lot. And I was just looking for that pitch.”

It seems nothing can stop this Cubs team now, and the biggest key to that is the contributions coming from each and every player on the roster.

That sentiment is becoming a daily talking point with guys like Tommy La Stella and Ryan Kalish and David Ross continuing to make big plays with their bats and with their gloves. Sunday, it was Cahill.

In the end, it might be the Rizzos and Bryants and Arrietas who win the awards and produce the most over a 162-game season. But the contributions from all over are the reason the Cubs are off to an out-of-this-world start.

“The whole group is complementing one another,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s worried about credit and all that other crazy stuff. We’re just worried about winning, and that’s why we’re playing so well.”

There’s no end to how impressive this Cubs team has been through its first 30 games of the campaign. But perhaps the largest statement the team has made yet came this week, with a perfect 7-0 showing against playoff-caliber opponents from Pittsburgh and Washington. After an April schedule loaded with weaker competition, these back-to-back potential playoff previews were dominated by the Cubs.

It’s only May, but it’d be hard to find a team right now looking any better for October.

“Give our guys all the credit in the world, they just come ready to play,” Maddon said. “I know that sounds way too simplistic, but they do. They’re ready to play, they complement each other so well. You have to pitch well to be able to pull something like that off against such good competition, and we have. The hitting’s been there, clutch hitting, defense.

“Just a good week of baseball.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.