The Rundown: Cubs Play Keep-Away, Playing Time Crunch Looming

Any team can win when the offense hangs big crooked numbers and provides a huge cushion, but it takes a little something more to grind out a 2-1 win like the Cubs did Tuesday night. Not only did the pitching staff show out with a combined one-hitter, but the hitters were very much on their collective game. Sound weird to say that about a squad that put up only two runs? It shouldn’t.

The Cubs had been rolling along, averaging 9.2 runs per game over their previous six wins, but their muted performance against Chris Archer was no less impressive. The Rays righty has struck out 11.35 batters per nine innings but has put up nearly one strikeout more than that since his July 4 start against the Cubs in which he earned eight K’s in six innings.

I had written in the lineup post that pitch recognition would be a huge key for the Cubs, and that was absolutely the case as they went down on strikes only six times in six innings. What’s more, only three Chicago batters struck out against Archer, with Anthony Rizzo accounting for three of those. Ian Happ went down twice and Kyle Schwarber once. Notice a theme here?

That’s right, no right-handed batters struck out against a pitcher who has put up 12.9 K/9 against righties over his previous 13 outings. Granted, there were only three righty hitters in there, but Willson Contreras and Addison Russell have combined for only five starts since August 9 and Javy Baez is Javy Baez. Admit it, you were sure the big swing was going to fall victim to that freaky slider a few times.

So that’s cool, but are you ready for some really crazy stuff? Archer generated only 13 swinging strikes Tuesday night, which isn’t incredibly insane all on its own. Heck, we saw Jake Arrieta put up starts in which he generated only a fraction of that. But what’s really baking my noodle is the fact that Happ (5), Rizzo (4), and Schwarber (2) accounted for all but two of those whiffs. Jon Jay waved at a slider in the 4th inning, which means lefties were actually responsible for 12 swings and misses.

When Contreras missed on an outside fastball in his first at-bat, it was the only time a Cubs righty did so against Archer all night. That’s kinda nuts, right?

It’s also a super-duper good sign of things to come. This team is really starting to put it all together, which has been more or less the plan the whole time. So while having multiple key players on DL late in the season would never be a part of anyone’s plans, it sure doesn’t look as though time off caused any iron oxide to develop on Contreras or Russell. And Jake Arrieta is set to return Thursday after a little more than two weeks off that may actually leave him stronger for the final push.

And with a push that includes eight games against the two teams behind them in the standings, every win is important in terms of playing keep-away.

Playing-time competition

“They all want in right now,” Maddon said prior to Tuesday’s game. “But even though they all want in, they’re really supportive of each other at the same time. So it’s kind of a nice mix we’ve got going on.”

Competition for playing time on this Cubs roster is nothing new; it’s actually been a running theme since well before the regular season. But a rotating series of injuries throughout the year have alleviated at least some of the headache associated with trying to fit more than enough capable players into eight spots every night. Not that everyone’s healthy, I hope Maddon’s got an extra large bottle of Excedrin in his locker.

Playing by DL rules for a couple days in Tampa certainly helps things in the interim, affording the Cubs the ability to slot Schwarber into the DH role. Maddon also gave Kris Bryant the day off, surely the last time he’ll do so this season. Maddon said Tuesday that his plan was to go with an infield of Rizzo, Baez, Russell, and Bryant — what we saw for much of the postseason last year — down the stretch.

That would greatly reduce the opportunities for Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ when it comes to positional flexibility, though Russell may get a little more rest for his foot here and there. Even so, it’s obvious that the crux of the crunch comes in center and left. That is, unless Maddon opts to flex Jason Heyward out more often than he’s been willing to thus far.

This is no doubt where the chorus of “Sit Schwarber, he strikes out too much” rises in the ol’ menchies, so let’s take a look at that. Schwarber’s 15 second-half home runs are three more than anyone else on the team in that period, while his .374 wOBA and 140 wRC+ both rank fourth. His 35.1 percent strikeout rate also leads the team, but it’s been dropping over the last couple months and I’m more than willing to put up with that in exchange for the game-changing power. Like, the kind of power that provides half the team’s offense in a close game down the stretch.

Zobrist and Happ have been pretty much the same guy in terms of overall production, separated by two points in wRC+ and four points of wOBA. Happ’s got more power, but his strikeout rate is going up all the time and is nearly at 42 percent here in September. Zobrist is the best option at leadoff for the Cubs right now as well, so he gets the leg up in that regard.

Albert Almora Jr. has been scorching hot over the last few months and deserves to get more run even against righty pitchers. That time should be coming at the direct expense of Jon Jay, who has actually been one of the Cubs’ worst hitters since mid-July. In fact, his offensive stats are worse than Heyward’s across the board and Jay’s doing it with a much higher BABIP.

A deeper look reveals that Jay’s relatively high .341 BABIP is actually a point lower than his career average, so there’s really no worry that regression is due. However, that’s mostly because it’s pretty clear said regression has already taken place. Like Seth Rogen, Jay was great in small doses and has become somewhat less likable with too much exposure. He’s got no power, strikes out at a nearly 20 percent rate, and doesn’t walk as often as Happ, Zobrist, or Schwarber. Dude needs to be a bench bat.

I understand that much of what Maddon uses to determine his lineups comes from numbers I don’t have, but I’ve got no clue how the hell any geeks could possibly be saying that more Jay is a good thing. Seeing him in the pinch-hitting role in which he excelled early in the season would be very much fine by me.

More news and notes

•  Alex Gordon’s homer for the Royals last night was No. 5,694 of the MLB season, breaking the previous record set in 2000. But, you know, balls aren’t juiced.

• The Blue Jays agreed to a one-year, $13M extension with 34-year-old Marco Estrada.

• The Cardinals have activated “ace” righty Adam Wainwright, who’s been on the DL since mid-August with an elbow impingement. Waino has posted a 5.12 ERA this season and will work out of the bullpen now that the Cards to have shifted to a younger rotation. That’s too bad for the Cubs, as it would have been nice to have the chance to face him in the upcoming series.

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