Thanks to a familiar recipe of good pitching and solid defense, the Cubs salvaged the last game of a four-game set against the Diamondbacks. Those two qualities are what this club was built on going into the 2023 season, and both factored into Sunday’s 5-2 win.
After losing the first three games to Arizona as the offense struggled against top-tier pitching in Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, starter Kyle Hendricks and the combined effort of Jose Cuas, Mark Leiter, Jr., Hayden Wesneski, and Julian Merryweather out of the bullpen kept Arizona to two runs on Sunday.
Hendricks succeeded on his changeup that has kept hitters off balance for years, striking out four in the first two innings. He pitched into the sixth, scattering seven hits across 5 ⅔ innings and allowing both of Arizona’s runs. The bullpen combined for 3 ⅓ innings and never allowed a runner to reach scoring position until Pavin Smith got to second in the ninth inning on defensive indifference.
“That’s what we can bring every single day,” David Ross said of his team’s performance on the mound and on defense. “These guys have done a really nice job of pitching for a while now. Our starters continue to go out and give us a really nice outing and a chance to win.”
The Cubs bullpen ERA (3.93) ranks 14th in baseball, but that’s a significant difference from where they were in May and early June, when the team was well below .500. Some roles are more clearly defined at this point in the season, and when needed, Ross can call on different guys to fill in and be flexible. Michael Fulmer has been out with a right forearm strain since August 26, so guys like Cuas and Leiter, Jr. have had to get outs in spots he would normally take. And on Sunday, Merryweather took the ninth inning and earned his first save of the season.
“Those guys have given me more than I ever could have asked for, to be honest,” Ross said of his bullpen. “They’ve held down the back end of our games and done a really nice job in that.
“There’s so many big, important pieces to our team, but those guys continue to post and give us all they got.”
Behind them, the Cubs defense helped in keeping the Diamondbacks’ nine hits from turning into big innings. As a group, they ranked sixth in the league in defensive runs saved (40) headed into Sunday. Notably, left fielder Ian Happ converted a fifth-inning double play that turned the tide on what could have been a game-shifting inning for Arizona.
Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. lead the inning off with a double and then scored thanks to back-to-back singles by Emmanuel Rivera and Seby Zavala. With Rivera on second, Geraldo Perdomo hit a fly ball to left field, where Ian Happ made the catch for one out and then a very quick throw to second base to catch Rivera off the bag for a double play.
“They’re getting a little momentum there, getting a couple hits in a row, guys on base,” Hendricks said. “For him to come in and make the play and double the guy off second, it really just shut down the inning. That was huge.”
“You’re just trying to catch the ball, first thing,” Happ said. “And when you see he’s a little bit off there, getting rid of it quick. I played infield once upon a time, so that’s when it shows up.”
A quick glove to hand transfer is key to making that play. With the distance Happ had to make the throw to second, an extra moment getting the ball into his throwing hand makes the difference the other way. That transfer is a move familiar to middle infielders – Happ played a lot of second base early in his career and as recently as 2021 – and gathering the ball in the outfield and getting the ball released quickly helped him get Rivera out at second.
Obviously, hitting three home runs is going to help win ballgames, too. The Cubs scored in the first on a Seiya Suzuki RBI double and then opened things up with three solo home runs in the third inning. Dansby Swanson drove in an insurance run in the fifth.
Dropping three games out of four to the Diamondbacks, who are right behind the Cubs in the wild card race, might eventually prove costly. But Ross has touted his ballclub’s unwavering consistency all season, and he credits that for helping them weather tough patches like a challenging four game series.
“When two teams line up with similar records, it’s going to be tough, and one little detail here or there is going to push it the other way,” he said.
On the whole, the Cubs are entering into one of the final stretches of the season. After they go to Colorado and Arizona this week, they have one homestand left before finishing the season in Atlanta and Milwaukee at the end of the month.
There are a lot of important games left; not only three more against the Diamondbacks, but the Cubs finish the year on the road against a team that has already clinched a playoff spot (the Braves) and one they’ve been chasing in their division all season (the Brewers).
Their consistently good pitching and defense have helped them weather stretches when the lineup has struggled. Behind all of that, there’s a clubhouse with a significant veteran presence. And not just guys with a lot of years in the big leagues, but a group that has logged a lot of playoff games. Guys who have been through it, and who can help lead the group as a whole through an important final stretch.
“Playing a lot of baseball, and guys being around different teams that have had success,” is how Happ describes team leadership.
“The way you get through 162 is by being as consistent as you can,” he said. “Consistent mindset and just going and playing every day. It’s one day at a time. It’s cliché, but it’s very true.”
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