Swept by the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend, the Cubs dominance on the mound has the best team in baseball looking funny in the light. The Cubs take the first two and have a chance to give the Rays their first sweep of the year.
Words by Eugene McIntosh
The Tampa Bay Rays do A LOT of things well. The best team in baseball hits home runs at a record setting pace, they lead the league in stolen bases, have two of the top five pitchers (wins wise) in the league and came into this series against the Cubs outscoring their opponents by 120 runs.
The Cubs have the Rays looking like a shell of themselves through the first eighteen frames after a 2-1 victory Tuesday night in front of 31,762. What has probably been the best two game stretch of pitching all season for the Cubs, they've held Tampa to one run and eight hits and it's the least productive the Rays offense has been in consecutive games. They've also done a great job of keeping the ball out of the air and in the ballpark.
#PoetryInMotion Kyle Hendricks made his second start after suffering a capsular tear in his right shoulder. He admitted there were some nerves and jitters upon his return but said last night he felt more like himself even though he still has some things to clean up. He went five innings scattering six hits while allowing one run on 75 pitches. The longest tenured Chicago athlete established his fastball inside early to make his changeup most effective, he got out of jams in the first couple of innings and made quality pitches in tough situations.
"I felt much more like myself from the start. I had a much better game plan going in and felt much more comfortable out there in general. It got better as it went. The third, fourth & fifth I was back down in the zone better. So just doing it even more. Back to work this week and getting everything back down in the zone a lil better," said Hendricks.
The Cubs got on the board early in the bottom of the first as Nico Hoerner took a Shane McClanahan 96 mph first pitch into the bleachers to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. (I watched pregame batting practice and Nico was pulling the ball the entire time which is unusual for him)
The Rays had a chance to clap back in the top of the second with one out and runners on first and second but Hendricks got catcher Francisco Mejia to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the threat.
It was relatively quiet until the top of the fifth when Randy Arozarena (who's reached safely in 20 of his last 21 games against the National League) singled with two outs to tie the game at 1. Hendricks got out of the inning and that was the end of his evening.
There's nothing worse than not converting a routine play that ends up costing your team, and in this case the undefeated lefty McClanahan. In the bottom of the sixth, Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe and right fielder Josh Lowe had communication issues converging on an Ian Happ pop up. Neither made a play on the ball and it fell between them resulting in a Happ double. After a Seiya Suzuki strikeout and a Trey Mancini 4-3 ground out that advanced Happ to third, Palatine's own Mike Tauchman's first pitch bloop single scored Happ to put the Cubs back on top. Tauchman has come up big since filling in for injured center fielder Cody Bellinger.
"It feels like it hasn't changed since spring training," manager David Ross said about Tauchman. "It's a calm at bat, he's willing to take his walk, lefties aren't over matching him and he's able to control the zone. Just the poise...he knows what he does well. Mike's a guy that's been around in big moments in big markets. He sticks do what he does well and doesn't get outside of that and controls the zone really well. He's also a guy that will attack his pitch early on in the count if he gets it where he wants it."
Tauchman is hitting .345 with 3 RBI and an .838 OPS in 29 at bats.
After the go ahead single gave the Cubs the lead, that was all she wrote for McClanahan. His night ended after 5.2 innings and seven strikeouts on 98 pitches. He was looking to become the first nine game winner in MLB. That's gonna have to wait another five days as he suffered his first loss of the season.
The Cubs have had huge bullpen issues lately and with the return of Codi Heuer looming and Hayden Wesneski recalled, it could give the pen a much needed boost. Marcus Stroman's complete game shutout Monday afternoon gave the relievers a day off and a chance to reset. Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbery Alzolay came in and shut the door on the Rays offense allowing one hit over the last four frames. Alzolay hasn't gotten a lot of work lately but when his number was called against the heart of the Rays offense, he was locked and loaded. He struck out four of the six hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth to seal the deal.
"We have a lot of confidence in Adbert. I think Adbert's done a really nice job for the most part locking things down in the pockets he's supposed to. He was probably the freshest guy down there and was able to really give us the two innings of shut down baseball. It was really nice, clean and easy. He was really locked in I thought as I've seen and the slider looked as sharp as I've seen it," said Ross.
Hendricks echoed Ross' sentiments.
"He's unbelievable man...he's locked in right now. U could tell he just had that look in his eyes. He was so aggressive. He was nasty. Some of those sliders you know...over 90 (mph) some of them. He was just letting it eat being aggressive. That's who he is."
The Cubs had a chance to add some insurance in the bottom of the eighth with the bases full and no outs. Trey Mancini hit into a 6-2-3 double play and Patrick Wisdom flew out to right as the Cubs came up empty.
"We can break that game open a little bit there later. Those knocks still aren't falling for us but these guys continue to turn over good at bat after good at bat. We've just gotta have something fall. We're hitting some balls hard at times and sometimes we're just a little unlucky," said Ross.
The Cubs embark on an 11 day/10 game west coast road trip starting Friday in San Diego, making a stop in Anaheim and concluding in San Francisco but have a chance to sweep the Rays this afternoon. The Cubs have already given the Rays their fifth series loss and would be the first time the Rays have been swept this season.
It'll be Justin Steele on the bump for the Cubs looking for win number seven versus Rays starter Zach Eflin who'll be searching for win number eight. First pitch 1:20.