Before we get into the meat of the Cubs’ delightful sweep of Clint Hurdle’s Pittsburgh Pirates, there are a couple things Joe Maddon has said over the years that I’d like to draw your attention to.
The first of those came just in the last couple of weeks. As I suspect you remember, Maddon went uncharacteristically ballistic after Javy Báez was nearly hit by a high-and-tight fastball thrown by Jordan Lyles. The Pirates are baseball’s runaway leaders in hitting opposing batters and the Cubs had clearly had enough of it. Following the game, Maddon said that he “couldn’t wait” to see the Pirates in Chicago.
The other Maddonism came quite a bit earlier in his Cubs tenure. Following a testy 2015 game against a Cardinals team managed by Mike Matheny, who is so old school that he might as well just be Hurdle’s clone, Maddon reacted with similar fire to an opposing team’s headhunting. He famously quipped at the time that the Cubs “don’t start stuff, but we will end stuff.”
Past, it turns out, is prologue. The Cubs exacted revenge on Hurdle’s band of headhunters not by engaging in a beanball war, but by sweeping the Bucs out of Wrigley Field to open the first half. Outside of a late game-tying home run by Starling Marte in Friday’s opener and a short-lived lead in Sunday’s finale, this was the Cubs’ series from start to finish.
The Cubs outscored the Pirates by 12 runs over the course of this three-game sweep. That alone should be enough to tell you that the series was absolutely jammed with fun highlights. If we’re choosing somewhere to start, why not the most dramatic?
As mentioned earlier, one of the only moments of real stress in this series came when the aforementioned Marte hit a game-tying three run home run in the 8th inning of Friday’s series opener. As it turns out, the team just wanted to set up a more exciting win. Following walks by Kris Bryant and Victor Caratini, Jason Heyward entered hero-mode.
Heyward’s go-ahead single was enough for Craig Kimbrel to secure his first 1-2-3 save as a Cub and the win foreshadowed a fun weekend to come.
If Friday’s game filled the need for a late comeback, Saturday supplied the laugher as Jon Lester was solid on the mound and even better at the plate. The veteran pitcher (and slugger?) went two-for-three with a home run and three runs batted in.
I’m still waiting to hear whether Lester might be able to make a spot-start or two at second base. They could certainly use his bat.
Saturday’s blowout also featured a spectacular ending on defense. In what might be one of the team’s better defensive plays of the year, Javy started this sparkling double play to seal the win.
With a series win already secured, Sunday’s finale offered a chance for the Cubs to demonstrate their supposedly renewed sense of urgency. The 2018 team was known to drop these types of games with regularity, but the 2019 Cubs haven’t even had the chance to cough one up since early June.
If this series is any indication, this year’s Cubs are in good shape. Sunday featured both the thrill of a comeback and the easy-going relaxation of what ended up being a blowout. The Pirates enjoyed a 3-2 lead going into the 5th inning before the wheels just fell off. The Cubs tied the game on a Caratini sacrifice fly before J-Hey made his presence known once again.
Heyward wasn’t alone on Sunday, either. Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber joined the homer party with back-to-back shots in the 6th inning and even José Quintana got in on the fun, picking up an RBI with his second hit of the year, a 4th-inning single. Quintana isn’t exactly a Lester-caliber slugger, but maybe he’s been taking notes.
- J-Hey’s success this year hasn’t necessarily been consistent, but it’s been fueled by some very impressive hot streaks and he’s clearly on one of those right now. Beyond being probably the MVP of this series, Heyward is hitting .357/.400/.732 over his last 15 games.
- KB homered on Friday and went 2-for-4 with a walk on Sunday. Bryant’s looking to build on a terrific first half and this series certainly represents a good start. His .955 OPS would be the best of his career, edging out his MVP season’s .939.
- It’s well known that Pedro Strop slander will not be tolerated in the confines of Cubs Insider. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history and he’s consistently been one of the most reliable members of the Cubs bullpen since joining the team in 2013. With all that said, he’s having a hard time establishing himself this year. The three-run home run he gave up to Marte Friday brought his ERA over 5.00 for the year and it’s worth wondering whether he’s completely healthy given the hamstring issues he’s had since late last year.
A series sweep to open the year could represent a classic Pat Hughes “turning point.” Strong second halves have been a defining trait of Maddon’s Cubs teams since his arrival in 2015 and this one is off to as good a start as you could hope for.
The Cubs have opened up a 2.5 game lead in the National League Central, thanks both to their own efforts and the failure of the second-place Brewers to win their weekend series. After a prolonged rough stretch, it’s almost hard to believe that the Cubs suddenly find themselves with the largest division buffer they’ve had since May 25.
There’s plenty of baseball left to play, but the second half of 2019 is off to a delightful start.