Darvish Shoves, Heyward Gloves, Bryant Moves in Important Second-Half Opener

It’d be irresponsible to call a win in the 91st game of the season some kind of statement or referendum on the team as a whole, but the Cubs opening the second half with a 4-3 victory over the Pirates Friday afternoon felt somehow bigger. And not like in some blogger-creating-an-angle way, just legitimately more important than a regular ol’ W.

With the deadline less than three weeks away and the NL Central closer from top to bottom than any other division is from first to second, every game matters. And when the opponent is in said division and just handed the Cubs their asses in a paper bag last week, well, I think you get the point.

“[I]f you have two or three weeks of poor play, given where the division is, you might find yourself in fourth place and looking up four or five games at somebody and then you have to be realistic about where you are,” Theo Epstein said recently ($).

“It’s not by decree from anybody, especially from me. But it’s just by the nature of the standings that these next few weeks are obviously really important, for sure, every game.”

So it was perhaps a little odd to see Yu Darvish out there on the bump with Willson Contreras on the bench, especially since the All-Star break afforded the ability to reset the rotation. Even if you don’t subscribe to the notion that Darvish is too weak mentally to shoulder the load in big situations, the guy hasn’t won a game at Wrigley as a Cub and had a 4.99 home ERA entering Friday’s start.

Rather than hide from that, Darvish owned it and went to Joe Maddon to request the chance to get his team off to a good start.

“Last year, I didn’t do anything,” Darvish said. “I want to pitch a lot of games this year. I know the first game after the All-Star Break is tough for the pitcher and everybody, but I believe I can do it, so I told him I can pitch.”

He pitched alright, stifling the Pirates over six innings in which he allowed only two hits and one walk while striking out eight. And neither of the hits left the yard, the first time in five games he’d managed to avoid a dinger or two. Homers aside, the 41 strikeouts and six walks over his last six starts beats the F out of the 33 and 22 he had over his first six.

It helped that Jason Heyward was patrolling right field and snagging some of the few would-be hits Darvish almost surrendered. He even picked up a couple knocks of his own, both of which came with runners in scoring position and one of which drove in the winning run.

Kris Bryant also got a hit with a runner in scoring position, though it was to drive himself in on a leadoff homer to open the scoring in the 7th inning. That was my way of saying KB is always in scoring position, which goes double for when he’s really in scoring position. Wait, what the hell am I even talking about? Oh yeah, I remember.

That second hit of Heyward’s we discussed earlier came with Bryant on second base, a soft single to left that Bryan Reynolds fielded cleanly and made an accurate throw home on. Probably 10% of all runners in the league could score on that play. Maybe that number is a little higher or lower, but Bryant leads the majors in going first-to-third on singles and he cuts corners like nobody’s business while his long strides eat up ground by the furlong.

The play was a perfect combination of things the Cubs don’t do particularly well: Put runners in scoring position and drive them in from there. The real problem is the former, since they’re actually doing a better job of hitting with RISP than at any point since Theo Epstein was running the organization. I understand how dubious that sounds, but read the post I linked there and join the ranks of the enlightened.

This could all fall apart if the Cubs soil the bed over the rest of the weekend, but something about Friday’s game just felt different. Yeah, you’re right, it’s probably just because this was the first real baseball we’ve seen in nearly a week. Still, watching the Cubs put things together in the different facets of the game at a time they clearly needed it was pretty nice.

It’s almost enough to make you not even worry about Pedro Strop, huh?

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