If you were a basketball fan in the 1990s, you’re probably familiar with this Sports Illustrated cover. Back then it was a fair question: were the Bulls, an unbeatable super-team featuring the greatest player of all-time (do I really need to say who that is?), ruining basketball?
The answer of course was no—interest in the NBA tailed off considerably after the Bulls’ dynasty ended. But the fact that we were even discussing it was pretty remarkable. Chicago broke the system. Sure they might lose once or twice in a given series (still unlikely), but beating the Bulls four times in seven games was, at that point in time, next to impossible.
I bring it up because it’s happening again, in the same city but with a different team. The Chicago Cubs—you know, the loveable underdogs who haven’t won a World Series since Teddy Roosevelt was president—have forgotten how to lose. MLB’s version of Phil, Jordan and Pippen kept the engine running Sunday with a 4-3 win over the Nationals, completing a four-game sweep.
Teams don’t sweep Washington. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. They did get swept by the Phillies last month (Philadelphia was riding a wave of stellar pitching). But usually, the Nationals are the ones doing the sweeping. Even after losing four straight, Washington still owns the National League’s third-best record behind the Mets and … well, the other team should be obvious.
If you scrolled through Sunday’s pitching matchups, you probably had an inkling of where this game was headed. That’s because Chicago was sending Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to the mound. Arrieta was a nobody in Baltimore but since coming to the Windy City he’s become an unsolvable riddle, a bearded, short-sleeve-wearing Rubik’s Cube of a pitcher with more out pitches than Baskin Robbins has flavors.
But Arrieta wasn’t himself on Sunday. The right-hander was a loose cannon, throwing three wild pitches while matching a season-high with four walks. He did tally seven strikeouts but due to a high pitch count, his day was over after just five innings. In that span, he allowed six hits and three runs, though only two of those were earned. The Nationals were ahead 3-1 when he exited, marking the first time Arrieta has trailed in a start this season.
The Cubs entered Sunday having won Arrieta’s previous 19 starts (playoffs not included). The streak looked to be in real jeopardy until Nats left-hander Oliver Perez relieved Tanner Roark in the seventh inning. Eccentric Cubs manager Joe Maddon elected to keep his pitcher in the game—Trevor Cahill—to face the left-hander. Because everything Maddon touches turns to gold these days, Cahill miraculously came through with a leadoff single. The Cubs dialed up some small ball after Cahill moved up 90 feet on a Dexter Fowler hit-by-pitch. Jason Heyward advanced the runners on a picture-perfect bunt, setting the stage for Kris Bryant’s game-tying single to right field.
The two teams traded zeros until the 13th when Javier Baez decided four hours and 54 minutes was more than enough baseball for one day. He took Blake Treinen’s 88-mph offering into the left field bleachers for a walk-off home run.
At 24-6, the Cubs are now off to their best start since 1907. Chicago won the World Series that year, so that’s probably a good sign. The Cubs’ start also stacks up favorably against the 2001 Mariners (MLB record 116 wins) and 1998 Yankees (114 wins), who were both 23-7 after 30 games. As Larry David would say, that’s pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Sunday’s game featured an interesting subplot. The Cubs continued their series-long trend of freezing out Bryce Harper. The reigning NL MVP was walked six times in seven trips to the plate. He was hit by a pitch in his other plate appearance, becoming the first player in MLB history to reach seven times without recording an official at-bat. Over the four-game series, Harper accepted 13 free passes in 19 plate appearances. He probably could have left his bat at home for the last two contests. Harper didn’t log an official at-bat in 11 plate appearances over that span.
Leave it to Maddon to take baseball’s version of Hack-a-Shaq to its logical extreme. Remember, this is the same guy who doesn’t believe in batting practice and once used nine pitchers in a playoff game. The crazy thing is, it actually worked. Cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t take advantage of Harper’s walks, collecting just one hit in seven at-bats. Pitching around Harper makes a lot more sense with Zimmerman sporting an ugly .236 average this season. Daniel Murphy, who is hitting .395 with a .640 slugging percentage, might be a better fit in the cleanup spot if teams are going to give Harper the run-around.
You may remember the freeze-out technique was quite prominent in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds was at the height of his powers. Harper is on pace for 157 walks this year, which would be the eighth-highest total in league history and the most since Bonds set the record with 232 free passes in 2004. Harper’s counting stats will suffer if he keeps getting the Bonds treatment. Bonds slugged a record 73 homers in 2001 but never came close to reaching that number again as his walk totals began to skyrocket. It’s an ugly practice and not what fans are paying to see. But can you really blame Maddon for doing it, especially when it’s working?
The Cubs are scary on so many levels. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo are all 26 or younger, so you know this team is going to be good for a long time. We’ve seen some great teams over the years but I can’t remember one that was so good at so many different things. The Cubs lead the majors in runs scored (184) and ERA (2.48). Their run differential is silly (+102). The rotation is built for October with Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey at the top. And the depth is outstanding. Sunday’s game-winning hit was provided by Baez, a utility player who fills in wherever the Cubs need him. The Cubs certainly look the part but we won’t know what they’re really made of until October.
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Quick Hits: The ageless wonder David Ortiz bashed two more home runs on Sunday. I know it would be embarrassing to give back all the retirement presents, but are we sure this is it for Papi? The guy still has so much left … I traded Dustin Pedroia in fantasy last week and he’s still trolling me … Sean O’Sullivan is expected to start Tuesday’s game against Oakland. He pitched one inning against the Yankees Saturday in his Red Sox debut … The American League’s third-lowest ERA belongs to—Steven Wright? Boston spent $217 million on David Price this offseason (second-highest ERA in MLB) and their best pitcher is a 31-year-old knuckleballer who makes $510,000. Sounds about right … Starlin Castro left Sunday night’s game with a rib injury. That’s the last thing the Yankees need right now. Castro leads the team in both average (.296) and RBI (12) … Justin Verlander struck out nine over seven scoreless innings Sunday against Texas. His bullpen rewarded him by allowing seven runs in the eighth inning. Four of those runs came across on Bobby Wilson’s first career grand slam … MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that Jose Reyes’ suspension for alleged domestic abuse is expected to span at least 60 games. Trevor Story has filled in beautifully at shortstop so the Rockies aren’t in any rush for Reyes to come back … Chris Herrmann contributed a pair of homers Sunday in the Diamondbacks’ win over Atlanta. Herrmann entered Sunday with eight round-trippers in 156 career games … David Peralta wasn’t in the starting lineup Sunday because of a bruised forearm but he grounded out in a pinch-hitting appearance in the 11th inning … Tyler Duffey accomplished a rare feat by striking out four hitters in one inning Sunday. Avisail Garcia, Brett Lawrie, Austin Jackson and Jimmy Rollins were Duffey’s victims … Manny Machado slugged two homers Sunday including his second grand slam of the season. Kendall Graveman served up four long balls in Oakland’s 11-3 loss … A’s catcher Josh Phegley tried his hand at pitching Sunday and it actually went pretty well. He struck out Adam Jones and got Mark Trumbo to pop up … Can Robinson Cano be any hotter? Since the beginning of May, he’s hit .514 with four homers and nine RBI. Right now he’s on pace for 63 home runs, which would be an American League record … Neil Walker didn’t start Sunday’s game because of a bruised shin. He struck out in a pinch-hitting appearance … Andrelton Simmons suffered a sprained left wrist on Sunday and could be headed to the disabled list. He hurt himself laying out for a groundball hit by Evan Longoria … Archie Bradley will make a spot start Monday against the Rockies. The Diamondbacks wanted to give Rubby De La Rosa an extra day of rest … Lance McCullers could return from the disabled list this week. He’s been out with shoulder inflammation … Brian Dozier walked in a pinch-hitting appearance on Sunday. He had missed the previous two games with a strained hamstring … Marco Estrada took a no-hitter into the sixth inning Sunday against the Dodgers. Trayce Thompson broke it up with a double to right field … Kenley Jansen earned his 153rd career save on Sunday. He only needs nine more saves to break Eric Gagne’s team record … A year ago, George Springer robbed Leonys Martin of what would have been a game-winning grand slam. The sequel occurred Sunday when Springer again reached over the fence to deny Martin of a home run. Updated score: Springer 2, Martin 0.