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.

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

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.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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