CHICAGO – In any special season, there’s that one game or series a team and its fans will look back on as memorable. The Chicago Cubs will undoubtedly have some ups and downs during the next four-and-a-half months, but the past four days against the New York Mets could be that series for them, especially when you consider their opponent came to town as the hottest pitching team in the league.
They aren’t any longer. The Cubs made sure of that.
“This was big for us, especially after losing two of three over the weekend,” Anthony Rizzo said after the Cubs' 6-5 victory on Thursday. “And facing their big dogs, their starting pitchers. Just goes to show, you put together good at-bats, you play clean baseball and good things will happen.”
What looked like a sure series-salvaging win by New York turned on a dime, not long ago after Cubs starter Travis Wood got knocked out of the game. Down 5-1, the Cubs' offense chipped away, led by get-on-any-way-you-can Rizzo. He was hit twice by pitches, increasing his league lead to 11 in 34 games. There are only 95 players in baseball who have walked more than Rizzo has been hit. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 11 HBP is the second-most since 1914 in a team’s first 34 games. He doesn’t mind the pain as long as the Cubs are winning, though that’s not exactly true.
“It doesn’t ever feel good to get hit,” Rizzo said, smiling.
He wouldn’t be smiling without the victory. What might be best about the Cubs' offense is their ability to come through with different heroes every night and without hitting home runs.
“It was singles, right?” Rizzo asked half-rhetorically. “No big hits. Just kept the line moving.”
It sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. If you truly have confidence in the guy behind you, you’re able to relax and just go after it. Sometimes you fail, but even if you draw just a walk, it keeps the offense going. That wasn’t the case in past years, when the home run was needed or else everything stalled.
Take the seventh inning on Thursday: Dexter Fowler singled, advanced to second when Rizzo was hit by his second pitch of the afternoon, then Kris Bryant advanced him to third on a fly ball to right field. Fowler scored on a passed ball, of all things. That’s how the winning run came home to complete the sweep. Yes, the baseball gods are shining on the Cubs right now.
“We’re playing on a very high mental level,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s a great believability within the group that we can do it.”
Not everything went perfectly this week. Wood had a rough outing on Thursday and the Cubs might have to keep a close eye on his spot in the rotation. But when you’re playing with house money, after winning the first three games of a series, Wood’s situation is nothing to lose sleep over. The starting staff – besides Wood – is coming around while the bullpen has made a comeback, partly thanks to Justin Grimm. He struck out the side in the sixth on Thursday just after the Cubs tied the game with a four-run fifth inning. How do you think the momentum felt right there?
“We’ve been battling three weeks in a row in the division,” Rizzo said. “Everyone talks about the division; you have to take care outside the division as well.”
The Mets were in first place with a 1.52 May ERA coming into the series. They had a top prospect making his debut along with a couple of other highly touted pitchers, including the great Matt Harvey. The Cubs beat them all.
“Very businesslike,” Maddon said of his team. “Exciting, but businesslike.”
Exciting indeed. And memorable.