It sounds weird to say that the team with the best record in baseball hasn’t been playing to its potential, but no one would have accused the Cubs of looking terribly sharp in July. They opened the month on a 2-8 stretch that included a five-game losing streak and were in danger of capping the month by dropping two of three to the Mariners. By many accounts they had already done just that.
Let’s be honest, the Cubs were pretty much punting Sunday’s game. Facing Felix Hernandez in the rubber game of their series, the home team was sending reclamation project Brian Matusz to the bump. Not fully stretched into a starting rotation role, his role was simply to stretch the starting rotation. I’m sure the call-up had nothing to do with avoiding the opt-out clause that would have kicked in had Matusz not been on the major league roster by Monday.
Not unpredictably, the southpaw struggled through three innings. He allowed three two-run homers, one in each frame, and just couldn’t hit his spots despite throwing 36 of 57 pitches for strikes. Down 6-0 early and unable to muster much fight, the Cubs weren’t necessarily giving folks a reason to stick around. Heck, I had almost given up, even flipping over to watch the DVR’ed finale of Next Food Network Star with my wife while the Cubs’ string was presumably being played out.
But then Travis Wood happened. And other things started happening. Improbable things. Things that happen and you look back later and go, “Huh, I think that great run started right there.” Things that get a relief pitcher to trend over Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens on Twitter.
After BM clogged the scoreboard with runs, the bullpen came on like a series of emergency plumbers and kept the seafaring Seattleites at bay for a full game’s worth of innings. Five different men manned left field, including two who had started out either catching or pitching. Wood and Willson Contreras formed a battery in the 6th and 8th innings, then patrolled the outfield in the 7th, 8th and 10th through 12th, respectively.
Jason Hammel pinch-hit for Matusz to lead off the bottom of the 3rd, John Lackey warmed up toward the end of the game, and Jake Arrieta was ready to grab a bat in the 12th. And there I was, food show long finished and my wife sound asleep by my side, trying to keep track of what was unfolding before me and trying harder not to jump up and down on the bed or yell any number of unintelligible words that were bubbling up to my lips.
I felt like the little girl from Poltergeist, drawn to stare intently at things on the television only I could see while the rest of my family sawed logs in blissful oblivion. The furious and improbable 9th-inning rally did what my morning coffee never seems to and had me wide awake and counting runs at a time I’d rather have been counting sheep.
After having written about Jason Heyward’s psychological struggles, I announced (online) that he was going to walk it off in the bottom of the 12th, a prediction that was about two feet shy of coming true. When Heyward tagged and advanced to third on Contreras’s sac fly, I nearly pulled out my phone to record the action for posterity even though I knew full well it’d be available in better quality immediately thereafter.
Then Maddon made the curious (to some) decision to hit Jon Lester instead of Arrieta with the game on the line. I mean, Jake is Jake, a pitcher who rakes, and Lester is the infamous owner of a .051 batting average and the longest-ever hitless streak to begin a career. But Lester strikes out less than Arrieta and has become pretty adept when it comes to laying down bunts. He’s also a lefty, which is nice when you’ve got a runner hauling ass down the line to score the winning run.
A bunt was laid, ass was hauled, a slide was made, and safe was called. Then a helmet was tossed and Lester was antiqued with chalk or rosin before having his jersey ripped open in the celebratory melee.
And it felt good, so much so that I found myself furiously tapping out a story on my phone because I couldn’t sleep. Joe Maddon had just Maddoned the absolute crap out of the game and the unlikeliest heroes of all had stepped up to key the victory. There are a thousand different ways to tell the story of the game, but I just need one: Heyward’s helmet.
The Cubs had threatened in a big way in the 5th inning, taking full advantage of King Felix’s lack of control by loading the bases on two walks and a single. Then Ben Zobrist walked in a run and Addison Russell was hit by a pitch to push another across. Heyward came up with two outs and men in scoring position, a situation in which he’s been surprisingly productive this season. Called strike, foul, swinging strike.
Heyward slammed his helmet to the ground and furiously undid the Velcro straps of his gloves, glowering as he tramped back to the dugout. It was frustration personified.
Fast-forward seven innings to Heyward sliding safely home following Lester’s bunt and a surprisingly close play at the plate. Once more he removed his batting helmet and once more he headed toward his teammates, but the mood this time was slightly different. It was a cathartic moment for me, so I can only imagine how it felt for the big right fielder whose bat has been the subject of much speculation and chagrin.
I don’t think I’m talking out of school when I say a game, particularly an ending, like this could really propel Heyward and the Cubs from this point forward. There it is again, the idea that the best team in baseball needs to or should get better. But if you’ve ever burned leaves or paper or something similar, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you just start a blaze and expect it all to burn, you’ll come back later to find a pile of ashes covering a bunch of untouched detritus.
In order to truly incinerate the whole thing, you’ve got to tend it, to turn it over and let the flames and the oxygen get into every last nook and cranny. Then you find those quiet embers reigniting into a roaring fire. That’s what I saw from the Cubs last night and what I expect from them moving forward. Because as hot as they burned at the start of the season, there’s still so much more fuel left.
So keep the marshmallows and Hershey bars ready, because I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be spending a lot of time around the fire as summer turns to fall.