Maybe Kyle Schwarber really is a super hero.
If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’ll no doubt remember the climactic scene in which the ragged group of Hulk-less heroes stands bloodied and beaten in the middle of a war-torn New York City. The alien menace they thought they’d worn down has come back with a vengeance, complete with giant, flying snake-things, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope for Captain America and Co. Enter Bruce Banner on an old motorcycle.
Banner calmly walks toward his friends as they assess the situation before them. All the while, this armored airborne alien is gliding down the avenue toward the Avengers, who seem ill-prepared to do anything about it. Banner turns in the direction of the huge beast as Captain America advises, “Dr. Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.”
“That’s my secret, Cap,” the mild-mannered scientist explains. “I’m always angry.”
I can just imagine the same thing happening in the Cubs dugout Tuesday night. Their team — still reeling a bit from a 2-5 stretch that included a Monday mauling at the hands of the hapless Reds — had just tied the game in the 6th, only to see their opponents pull ahead again on the strength of a wind-aided Eugenio Suarez home run to lead off the 7th. I mean, dude didn’t even realize the ball had gotten out. Tommy La Stella and newcomer Austin Jackson then opened the Cubs’ half of the frame with outs and things were looking a little bleak.
But then Dexter Fowler punched a single into right — his 8th hit in the last 5 games — to bring Kyle Schwarber to the plate. Many have grown fond of the Cubs rookie as a result of his exciting tape-measure blasts, but he’s a pretty calm and quiet guy otherwise. Put a mic in his face, and he’s just as reticent as Dr. Banner, if not more so; the Cubs didn’t need reticent last night though.
“Mr. Schwarber,” Joe Maddon advised, “Now might be a good time for you to get angry.”
“That’s my secret, Skip,” I can hear the burly slugger explain, “I’m always angry.”
When it comes to nicknames, I’m still partial to Schwarbeast. Or WAR Bear. Or Khal Schwarber. But I can’t think of a much more appropriate caption for this homer than “Hulk smash!” I don’t care what the wind was doing, that was a shot. And in a full count off of a low splitter, no less. The ball traveled 430+ feet with an exit velocity of 106 mph and gave the Cubs 2 runs, but the most interesting and important number related to the shot has to do with win expectancy.
Following the Suarez pop-up that somehow cleared the fence, the Cubs had only a 28.6% chance to win the game; by the time Jackson grounded out, that was down to 25.5%. If the Cubs and Reds were to play the final 2+ innings of this game over and over, the Cubs would only win 1 of every 4. Good thing this was the one, huh? Fowler’s single got them back up to 28.2%, but the opposite-field shot Schwarber launched pushed the Cubs’ odds of winning to 77.6%.
The emotional boost provided was even more important than the statistical one though, as you just got the sense that the Cubs were going to win it at that point. Of course, they’d have to go through the heart of the Reds’ order to do so, and with a pair of relievers who haven’t always been praised for their consistency. First up was the demonstrative Dominican-Dutchman, Pedro Strop.
Now, everybody, have you heard? At the end of the game, Pedro Strop’s the word. Strop me, Strop me! Strop! Strop! Somewhere, Billy Squier is smiling. Or shushing. I know it wasn’t the end end of the game, but Strop came on in the 8th to face Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips. The first two made things interesting, but it was the BP AB that had everyone talking.
Phillips worked a 3-1 count as Strop varied between high-90’s heaters and low-80’s sliders, but he had no chance against Strop’s last two offerings. An 83 mph slider bit hard and induced a swinging strike to fill the count. Then the cocked-hat-wearing reliever rared back and fired a 96 mph two-seamer that darted down as Phillips whiffed at it harmlessly. Noticeably jacked up, Strop jogged off, roaring at the batter as he went.
Now, I’m no fan of Brandon Phillips, who has always struck me as a guy who took himself way too seriously. For another example, see: Braun, Ryan. But I have to admit that I was pretty cool with Phillips’ reaction to Strop’s post-K celebration. There’s nothing wrong with having fun out there on the mound, though I’m sure Thom and Marty Brennaman would disagree with me there. It helps that it was my guy out there doing it, but no harm, no foul.
After the Cubs wasted a leadoff double from Miguel Montero in the 8th, it was Hector Rondon’s turn to lock the game down. Home Run Derby champ Todd Frazier was the first up; Chef Rondon started him off with an amuse bouche of sliders before moving to a steady diet of fastballs that reached 99 mph. A ground-out to Rizzo brought Ivan DeJesus Jr to the plate. Not a fan of the avant garde menu, he struck out on 3 pitches. Not only was the movement nasty, but Rondon went 99, 99, 88 on fastball, fastball, slider.
At that point Eugenio Suarez, who had earlier homered on a ball that apparently got caught in the jetstream, was the only thing standing between Rondon and the Cubs’ 75th victory of the season. He wasn’t standing for long though. After taking called strikes on a slider and fastball that clocked in at 88 and 100 mph, respectively, Rondon wiffled another 88 mph slider that the overmatched Suarez did little more than wave at.
It was hard to tell from his reaction how Rondon felt about holding down the save by striking out the last two batters on six pitches. I really wish these guys would show a little more emotion, you know?
Oh, and those 75 wins? That’s more than the Cubs have had in any of the past 4 seasons and it ties their 2010 mark. Not bad. This W, coupled with losses by the Giants and Pirates, served to increase the Cubs’ playoff odds to 96.4% (FanGraphs). While I’d just as soon they get back to walking over a few opponents, Tuesday’s victory was incredibly exciting and provided some hype-video moments.
The last 3 innings alone were well worth the price of admission. Perhaps more than any I can recall, this Cubs team seems fueled by adrenaline and momentum, neither of which was in short supply Tuesday. They’ll need to build up a nice reservoir of both as they head into the next couple weeks, but highlights like those above make me feel pretty confident in their ability to do so.