Cole Hamels

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September? 

Cubs' red-hot starting rotation is 'the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle'

Cubs' red-hot starting rotation is 'the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle'

Cole Hamels still hasn't even been in a Cubs uniform for a full calendar year, but he continues to add to his already eye-popping resume.

After shutting down the Cardinals for eight innings in the Cubs' 3-1 win Friday, Hamels has now permitted just 1 earned run in 22 frames against the division rivals dating back to last season. Fifteen of those innings have come over the last week, as Hamels faced the Cardinals in back-to-back starts and allowed only a lone unearned run in that span.

It is a continuation of the incredible success the Cubs rotation has had the last nine games, posting a 1.96 ERA and 0.80 WHIP while surrendering 3 or fewer runs each time out:

Cubs starters have been averaging nearly 7 innings an outing in that span, taking a huge burden off the bullpen.

Everybody is understandably buzzing about the eventual addition of Craig Kimbrel to the relief corps, but with starting pitching like this, it sets everybody up for success and could be the real key to the Cubs' season.

"All five of our guys, if you look at them all, legitimately nobody's a No. 5 starter and probably nobody's a 4 starter, either," Joe Maddon said. "I believe the starting pitching is the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle, absolutely."

Friday's outing extended Hamels' career record as a Cub to 9-5 with a 2.81 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 148 strikeouts in 154 innings across 25 starts. 

He also continues to perform well at Wrigley Field, dipping his career line on Chicago's North Side to 1.83 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 127 strikeouts in 128 innings.

Right now, it feels like almost anybody could be considered the Cubs' ace. 

Both Hamels and Jon Lester have gotten through a tough stretch and look lights out once again. Kyle Hendricks has a 2.09 ERA since the beginning of May. Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish are both throwing the ball about as well as we've seen them in a Cubs uniform.

After the game, Hamels admitted that the Cubs rotation is feeding off each other right now — the same way a red-hot lineup helps make everybody on the offense feel like they're seeing the ball well.

"When one guy does well, the next guy wants to do better," Hamels said. "It's kind of the internal friendly team competition that we have inside us to prove to each other that we can do it, too. I think you can see it when you have all four of us sitting and watching. We're encouraging that.

"We want our teammates to do better, because I think that's what it promotes — just that positivity. And you have guys who are pretty good at what they do. Any extra positive reinforcement is just gonna make us even better. 

"That's what we want — we all want to win every game, we want guys to win 20 games and go 200 innings and strike out everybody. We want that and I think you can feel it."

How Cubs plan to combat recent offensive woes and bad 'baseball luck'

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USA TODAY

How Cubs plan to combat recent offensive woes and bad 'baseball luck'

ST. LOUIS - Anthony Rizzo did all he could.

A batted ball with a .940 expected batting average is not supposed to be an out, obviously.

But that's what happened in the eighth inning of the Cubs' 2-1 loss to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon, their third straight defeat and eighth in the last 10 games.

Rizzo's looping liner with two runners on should've tied the game, but instead it settled into the very edge of Kolten Wong's glove. It was a great defensive play, no doubt, but it was also a microcosm of the Cubs' last week-plus: A mix of bad luck and lack of execution.

Make no mistake - nobody in the Cubs clubhouse is whining or throwing a pity party. They understand they won't get where they want to go this season by making a bunch of excuses.

"It's not like we're in here moping around - 'poor us, we can't get a hit right now with a runner in scoring position,'" Rizzo said. "We're doing our best and we're just falling short."

Since the eighth inning of last Monday's game in Houston, the only runs the Cubs have scored have come via home runs or on outs. They have only 1 hit in 33 at-bats with a runner in scoring position, but that hit was a bunt single by Daniel Descalso Saturday night that loaded the bases and did not plate a run.

"We just haven't driven in runs," manager Joe Maddon said. "We just haven't. We just gotta get better at doing that."

Sounds simple, right? But how do the Cubs actually go about fixing the issue?

Maddon wants his Cubs hitters to reorganize the strike zone and get back to an approach utilizing the middle and opposite fields and not focused on hitting home runs - an approach they had when they were one of the best lineups in baseball for the first quarter of the season.

Strikeouts have been a big factor lately, as the Cubs whiffed 9 more times Sunday (5 combined by Kris Bryant and Javy Baez).

"I really think the reduction in [production] with runners in scoring position is because we have not been in the oppo gap enough and I think strikeouts are attributable to that, also," Maddon said. "We've hit some home runs and maybe we're all a little bit home run happy. I want it all - I want two-strike approach, I want opposite gap, I want scoring one run and not having to worry about scoring all 3 or 4 [with one swing]. I want all of that stuff.

"We showed you we can do that. It'll come back. We're in a little bit of a bad stretch. We've faced some good pitching, but [hitting coaches Anthony Iapoce and Termel Sledge] do a great job and the guys are gonna get it. It's gonna come back to us. We just have to endure this moment right now."

Rizzo believes the hitters just need to keep putting themselves in opportunities with runners in scoring position and eventually a breakthrough will come.

He and his Cubs teammates are just trying to grind out tough at-bats and ride the wave until things turn.

"I think trying to do too much is the key that we're struggling with right now," Baez said. "Being nice to the ball and let the game come to us is the key to get back on track."

This is a game defined by failure, where even the best players don't come through more than 3 or 4 times out of 10.

But this is also a Cubs clubhouse filled with veterans who have been through just about everything this game can throw at a player and even the younger guys on the team know what it's like to ride the ebbs and flows of a long season.

This year is proof of that, as the Cubs got out to a 2-7 start after spending all winter talking about the need for urgency and getting off on the right foot in a year of reckoning.

"There's always a point of frustration with baseball," said Cole Hamels, who took the tough-luck loss Sunday despite not allowing an earned run in 7 innings. "It is a game of failure. It's a game of learning from your mistakes, capitalizing when you can and not getting too down on yourself when you have bad breaks.

"That's the nature of what sports are. You have to persevere. These are just moments that we're gonna have to persevere and dig deep and do the little things to win ballgames. Obviously we were able to do that after the first week of the season, so there's times that it happens again.

"You just kind of go with it. We all know who we are and what we're capable of doing, so to not be down and out on that. We'll come back and we have a game tomorrow and that's a good thing, so just start the homestand on a good note."

This also a sport with a degree of luck built in - where you can do absolutely everything right and execute perfectly and that doesn't guarantee you success.

Take Rizzo's looping liner Sunday - 94 times out of 100, that falls in and maybe that would've changed the entire rest of the game. Meanwhile, two batters earlier, Kyle Schwarber looped a fly ball down the left field line that fell in for a single...even though it had an expected batting average of only .050.

Earlier in the game, Bryant had finally broken up Adam Wainwright's no-hitter with a single to left field, but Rizzo came up and promptly lined into a double play, as he hit a hard smash right at Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, who made a nice leaping catch. That ball had a .710 expected batting average and it was the second time in the game the Cubs had lined into a double play.

The night before, it looked like Bryant had come through with runners on, hitting a hard ground ball up the middle with the bases loaded. But the ball deflected off the glove of St. Louis pitcher Andrew Miller and instead of a game-tying 2-run hit, it wound up going as a force out at second base and the Cubs managed just 1 run.

Obviously it's also about a lack of execution. Before Rizzo's liner was caught by Wong in the eighth inning, Wainwright struck out Bryant with a 90 mph fastball on his 123rd pitch of the afternoon.

"The game will beat you up if you permit it," Maddon said. "It's a cyclical game. We were doing really well about a week ago and all of a sudden, we've had a tough week. We played Houston - a really good pitching staff. We come in here and they've pitched well against us. It'll come back.

"Things haven't been [going our way]. It's the weird part of playing 162 games. We just gotta keep fighting through it. There's nothing to cry about."

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