Cubs

Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

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Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

Miguel Montero caught a quick glimpse as Tony Cruz chugged toward home plate and suspected the Cubs had a shot to make a play. From their vantage points, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Cahill were far more confident about Jorge Soler’s chances.

Meanwhile, Clayton Richard missed most of it from the bullpen.

But what occurred in a 57-second span in the sixth inning on Tuesday night and again several minutes later wildly altered the Cubs’ fortunes. 

Soler first saved the day when he squashed a game-tying St. Louis Cardinals rally with an outfield assist and Anthony Rizzo capitalized on the momentum swing with a solo homer three batters later. The Cubs rode the two plays and a Kyle Schwarber homer to a 6-4 victory in Game 4 to complete an upset of the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series. The victory advanced the Cubs to the NL Championship Series, which begins Saturday in either Los Angeles or New York.

“I saw (Cruz) was still out there, so I’m like ‘All right, let me go back and see if I can make this play,’” Montero said. “But it was actually a good throw. Probably didn’t have too much on it. But it was a good throw.

“We killed the rally right there and Rizzo was able to hit another homer so it was huge.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta on Cubs: ‘Nobody wants to play us right now’]

The Cardinals’ sixth-inning recovery against Cahill had the ability to dash the Cubs’ postseason hopes in an instant. While there wasn’t a critical error to extend it like in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS or the seventh inning of Game 5 in 1984, St. Louis was on the verge of a comeback that could have sunk the Cubs. Instead of completing the upset in four games, the Cubs could have had to head back to St. Louis for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday.

Down 4-2, Jason Heyward led off the sixth with a single against Travis Wood. Jhonny Peralta then greeted Cahill with another single to silence the sellout crowd of 42,411. 

Cahill responded with strikeouts of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to bring the crowd back to life. He also jumped ahead of Cruz— a late addition to the lineup after Yadier Molina was scratched because of a thumb injury — 1-2 in the count only for the backup catcher to cue a 95-mph sinker into right field for a two-out RBI single. Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss then looked as if he may bring the Wrigley crowd to its knees when he ripped a 0-1 changeup to right for a single. Not only did Peralta score the tying run, the slow-footed Cruz headed for home to try and put the Cardinals ahead. 

“I was like ‘Uh oh,’ ” Cahill said.

But as the play developed, Cahill realized the Cubs might be headed for the dugout as Soler quickly collected it on a hop. 

“Soler has a cannon,” Cahill said.

Without hesitation, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo waved Cruz home, a call manager Mike Matheny agreed with.

“We needed to test the outfield,” Matheny said.

[RELATED: At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story]

Fowler wouldn’t have made the same choice as Soler has what Baseball America described as “an easy plus arm.” He figured Soler had a great shot to nab Cruz.

“With his arm, I don’t think you can go right there,” Fowler said. “But they had to make a choice.”

So did Montero. 

Catchers always have to evaluate whether or not there is a chance to make a play on a throw home or if they should run up to cut off the throw and avoid any chance of the ball skipping past.

Bench coach Dave Martinez said it was a no-brainer for Montero because of where Cruz was and because it was Soler. His voice hoarse from yelling and jersey soaked with champagne, Martinez said he had confidence in Soler because they work on similar plays on a daily basis.

“You pretty much know you’ve gotta let the ball go and we’ve gotta take a shot,” Martinez said. “I knew if (Soler) came up with it we’d have a good chance.

“It was a perfect throw.”

Once Montero peeked down the line, he decided to back up. Soler’s throw perfectly one-hopped and in one motion Montero caught it and tagged Cruz with plate ump Mark Carlson immediately calling Cruz out.

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The Cubs were optimistic they escaped a potential landmine but had to wait to see if Matheny would challenge the call. The momentary pause caused Richard, who stopped warming up to watch the throw, to rapidly start throwing again because left-hander Matt Carpenter stood in the on-deck circle.

“We didn’t know if it was going to get reviewed or not so I had to keep on throwing,” Richard said. “Unfortunately, I missed everything.”

Once the replay showed, Matheny knew he couldn’t win a replay challenge and backed down. The crowd roared to life and the Cubs headed off the field with Cahill both upset and relieved.

“(Soler) absolutely saved my ass,” Cahill said. “I was really upset I gave up the lead, they tied it up on me.”

Three batters later, Rizzo made it moot with a solo homer off Kevin Siegrist to put the Cubs ahead for good. While Montero called the play huge, he’s not sure the Cubs would have reached that point had it not been for the base runner. Moss’s single took a late, high hop on Soler, which slightly slowed down the right fielder’s momentum and affected the throw.

“Probably didn’t have too much on it,” Montero said. “But it was a good throw.

“Good thing it was Cruz running, another catcher. Catchers, we are really slow.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."