The Chicago Cubs went into Pittsburgh this weekend with all of St. Louis cheering for them, another instance of a pennant race making strange bedfellows. While all four games were decided by one or two runs, the Cubs could only manage one win in the four games. But at least we got the consolation prize of St. Louis being disappointed and still in a tie with the Pirates for first place.
Yesterday’s game was the most concerning of all, as Francisco Liriano held the Cubs hitless through the first six innings. We may not care so much about wins and losses at this point in the season, but none of us want the 7,650 game streak of no no-hitters to end. Luckily for us, Junior Lake was up first in the seventh.
Liriano had thrown 99 pitches through six innings, and Junior Lake connected on No. 100, recording an infield single to lead off the seventh for the first hit off the lefty. Castillo then launched pitch No. 102 into the left-field seats for his seventh home run to tie the game. Darnell McDonald singled, and Liriano was lifted. It’s the first time in 24 starts that he did not get a decision.
“He’s not easy to hit,” Castillo said of Liriano. “He’s got good offspeed [stuff], and he throws it for strikes. He’s a guy you have to be aggressive against all the time because he can throw 96 and 88 [mph] and has a slider at 85, 87. What makes him good is [all the pitches] look the same. His changeup looks like his fastball, his slider looks like his fastball. He’s been good his whole career. The approach we had to take was, be aggressive and try to get him early.”
Castillo has now nearly doubled his season home run total in the last week, having hit three to run his total to seven. Another bit of encouragement to take from this game was that Travis Wood had yet another quality start, throwing six innings and allowing only two runs.
Sticking to the Cubs coaches’ plan has been key for Wood this season, his first in which he’s been on a big league roster from Opening Day until the finish.
“For me, it goes back to last year when they wanted me to work both sides of the plate, arm side and glove side, and I really focused on arm side because I was predominantly glove side,” Wood said. “For me to take that into this year and make sure I can command both sides of the plate and prepare as best as I can, side sessions and everything, it’s been outstanding.”
One unnoticed bit of improvement from the Cubs is that they’ve been playing well on defense. Since the All Star Break, they’re fifth in the majors in team fielding percentage.
Barney leads the majors for the second consecutive season in defensive wins above replacement for his position as well as in fielding percentage. Rizzo leads National League first basemen in defensive WAR and zone rating, and he is second in fielding percentage.
Even the oft-maligned Castro has made just four errors since his first day off in late June and is second since then among NL shortstops in range and third in fielding percentage.
David Bell has been the coach primarily working with the infielders, and he’s happy with what he’s seen.
“Rizzo works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen. And Barney, as hard as he’s worked, I feel like he’s worked smarter as the season’s gone on,” Bell said, “just really doing what he needs to get better but also to get prepared for the game.
“And Castro — look at the season these guys have had and how valuable, when they look back, a year like this is going to be in the big picture and how they’ve handled it.
“[Castro’s] just stayed with it and kept working at it and showed a lot of toughness. And I know that’s going to pay off.”
So while we can bitch about their seasons on offense, at least they’ve shown improvement elsewhere.