CHICAGO -- The season is still young, but not so young that teams on the margins shouldn’t be worried. The Chicago Cubs aren’t marginal and weren’t worried, but even if they were, 14 runs is a good way to cure a little offense-related anxiety.
Home runs powered the Chicago offense during the Cubs’ 14-2 rout of the Miami Marlins on Monday, with four balls leaving the Friendly Confines. Of course, a dearth of home runs had not really been the Cubs’ issue. Hitting them with men on base was the real problem, or at least getting men on base in the first place.
The bugaboo stat: 13 solo home runs. That was the streak the Cubs were working on when they began their three-game set at Wrigley Field against the Marlins on Monday night. Their previous 13 homers were all solo jacks, dating back to April 20. It was a streak that ended in resounding fashion.
“Sometimes you just have those nights,” Cubs super-utility player Ian Happ said after one of the best nights of his young career. “No [batting practice] today. Everybody just got their work in the cage and went out and played. That’s how we grew up playing. That’s natural.”
Entering the game, just 29 percent of the Cubs’ runs this season had come via the long ball, the third-lowest total in the majors. That changed on Monday, and it changed quickly, on a night in which Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber were all resting on the bench with Miami putting tough lefty Jarlin Garcia on the mound.
Kris Bryant followed a Ben Zobrist walk in the first by crushing a high changeup offered by Garcia, snapping the string of solo shots. Then Javier Baez crushed a three-run shot into the foliage of the batter’s eye in dead center field in the third inning.
That’s where the landslide of runs started, then it was the switch-hitting Happ’s time to blow up. In the fourth, he followed an Addison Russell walk with another homer that settled into the greenery of the batter’s eye, doing so from the right side of the plate. In the seventh, batting from the left side against righty reliever Tyler Cloyd, Happ punched a three-run blast to the opposite field in left.
“[Garcia] is really good,” manager Joe Maddon said, noting that the Miami starter was leading the National League in ERA entering the game. “I thought maybe [Bryant’s] home run got him on his heels a little bit.”
Four homers, all with men on base, accounting for 10 of Chicago’s season-high-tying 14 runs. Chicago came in having scored three runs or fewer in 10 of its previous 11 games, leading to an entire suite of concern-related questions before the game for team baseball operations guru Theo Epstein.
“There is no cute name for this one,” Epstein said. “We’re just struggling. A number of guys are pressing. It’s not pretty. There is no easy answer. There is no fire-and-brimstone speech that will turn this thing around.”
No speech, apparently, but something clicked after Epstein chatted with the friendly local media scrum.
“I think we had a good approach the whole game,” Happ said. “Good at-bats from a lot of different guys.”
Happ became the first Cub to homer from both sides of the plate since catcher Dioner Navarro did it on May 29, 2013. Happ said he also accomplished the feat once as a minor leaguer, and thought that since he had done it at the game’s highest level, it was kind of a big deal. Then he ran into hitting coach Chili Davis.
“Really special,” Happ said, with a hint of sarcastic inflection in his voice. “I ran into Chili, who told me he did it 12 times in his career. That’s my first in the big leagues and second ever. And he’s done it 12 times in the big leagues. A little bit of a ways to go.”
Davis hit 350 career homers over a 19-year career. And Happ was a little off: Davis homered from both sides of the plate in a game 11 times.
Meanwhile, Bryant extended his streak of games with an extra-base hit to five, tying a career best.
“Up and down, I thought we did really well,” Maddon said. “A nice tight game.”
The offensive explosion came one night after the Cubs toiled into the early-morning hours only to be defeated on a 14th-inning, walk-off homer in St. Louis off the bat of former teammate Dexter Fowler. Chicago arrived home early Monday morning and skipped batting practice before Monday’s game. Apparently, fatigue and a clipped pregame routine were just what the doctor ordered.
It was that kind of night for the Cubs, when everything they needed fell into place. Need an offensive jolt? Well, 14 runs ought to wake you up. Need to stop hitting solo homers? How about four dingers with men on base?
“We do this every day,” Happ said. “There are going to be times where everybody is going good, or everybody is going bad. But that’s part of the flow. For us to have [slumped] early kind of magnifies it, but we will be all right.”
And after a long, long game on a getaway day in St. Louis, how about a starter who saves the bullpen? That’s where the uber-efficient Kyle Hendricks comes in.
Hendricks baffled the Marlins all night by moving around his fastball and spotting in an effective changeup, getting soft early contact throughout an eight-inning outing that required just 98 pitches. Even though the Cubs piled up 14 runs and 15 hits, the contest was still played in a relatively brisk 2 hours, 48 minutes. Thank Mr. Hendricks for that too.
“You have it in your mind, for sure, going out there for a start,” Hendricks said of going deep into the game. “The only way to do that is to make good pitches, pitch to contact and get quick outs. Which I try to do anyway, so you take the same mindset out there.”
The day was not without its trials. After battling illness for a few days, starter Yu Darvish was placed on the 10-day disabled list because of the flu. He won’t make his scheduled start on Tuesday against Florida, which leaves the Cubs scrambling for a starter, or possibly to cobble together a bunch of relievers for a bullpen game.
Then Baez was removed from the game in the seventh inning because of soreness in his right groin. His homer gave him long balls in three straight games, the longest streak of his career. He leads the Cubs with 10 homers and 32 RBIs over the first 32 games, 31 of which Baez has appeared in. The most recent Cubs player to reach those homer and RBI counts in the first 32 games of the season was Sammy Sosa in 2001.
So the Cubs will get back after it on Tuesday, not knowing if their hottest hitter will be available, but after Monday, they at least can take solace in a lineup that appeared to be waking from a long slumber. Then again, it was just one night, and it was against a Marlins team that does not currently deploy an elite pitching staff.
“Baseball is designed to torture you,” Epstein said of his chosen profession, comments from which you might deduce he is kind of a sadist. “And then it makes it that much better when things go your way.”