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It was 54 degrees on October 3rd in Milwaukee, and the Cubs were bunched around the batting cages, working on their bunting. Manager Joe Maddon, who spent years as a nuts-and-bolts minor-league instructor, and whose mantra this year has been “Do Simple Better” was convinced that his players would need to come up big in a bunt situation come playoff time, and wanted to drive home that message on the penultimate day of the regular season. Maddon’s decision took just a week to pay off. The Cubs did simple better Saturday night in St. Louis, beating the Cardinals 6-3 in their own ballpark and taking the series back to Chicago knotted at one.

After Cardinals’ starter Jaime Garcia made quick work of the Cubs in the top of the first (save a Jorge Soler double; more on him later), Matt Carpenter led off the bottom half of the frame with a two-strike home run to dead center, putting the Cardinals up by a run and engulfing the Chicago dugout in a sea of scarlet exultation. Carpenter’s blast was the first allowed by Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks since September 17th, and broke in an instant the 12-inning scoreless streak he’d carried with him to St. Louis. It did not break Hendricks. At some point between the moment the baseball left Carpenter’s bat and the moment Stephen Piscotty settled into the box, stance slightly open and hands at eye-level, Hendricks reset the moment in his mind and got down to work.

Between Carpenter’s home run leading off the first inning and Kolten Wong’s, which came with two outs in the fifth, Hendricks retired 14 of 15 batters faced. There’s a real simple reason, too: his changeup. It’s a pitch Hendricks moved away from slightly in September, throwing it only 15 percent of the time after sitting in the mid-twenties all season, but it was working tonight.

Of the 66 pitches Hendricks threw on Saturday night, 26 were changeups (39 percent), and those pitches generated swings and misses at a 65 percent clip. That’s not just 40 points higher than Hendricks’ norm (about 25 percent, this year), it’s by far the highest whiff rate Hendricks has ever generated on the pitch as a big-leaguer, approached only by the 50 percent whiff rate he hit on June 15th against the Mets.

Sure, Hendricks’ mistakes got hit hard—Randal Grichuk followed Wong with a home run in the seventh, chasing Hendricks from the game and bringing Travis Wood in from the bullpen—but that’s part of the charm for a pitcher whose four-seam velocity sits at 89-90. The home run to Carpenter, in particular, was a mistake pitch that was left middle-up. You just simply cannot do that.

But we’ve moved away from the lede: the Cubs did simple better on Saturday night, and nowhere was that more evident than in the second inning. Starlin Castro led off the frame with a single to center, but his time on the basepaths wouldn’t last long: Austin Jackson grounded the next pitch to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who quickly flipped the ball to Kolten Wong at second to retire Castro.

If that’s where the play had ended, I might be writing about a very different game. But Wong—who turned 25 on Saturday—inexplicably threw the ball past Brandon Moss at first, allowing Jackson to advance to second base with only one away. After Miguel Montero worked a walk (starting a run of excellent plate appearances) and Jackson stole third, Kyle Hendricks came to the plate with runners on the corners.

The first pitch from Garcia was a ball. The second was too, of course, but only in the physical sense that characterizes all of its kind, and not in the more limited baseball-specific sense; in any event, it never reached Yadier Molina’s glove. Hendricks, his mind perhaps harkening back to that chilly afternoon in Milwaukee one week ago, leaned into a bunt and sent the pitch tripping and stumbling back towards Garcia.

The TBS broadcast called the play a suicide squeeze, but I’m not quite so sure that’s what it was; Jackson froze on Garcia’s delivery and only really started moving when the bunt was already down. His delay might have helped the Cubs, as by the time Garcia got to the ball, Jackson was far enough into his field of vision that he considered, for a moment, trying to make the play at home. Perhaps he’d have been better served doing that: his throw to first was errant, drawing Moss off the bag and allowing both Hendricks and Montero to advance, with a run in the bank.

The inning spiraled from there for St. Louis. Addison Russell followed Hendricks with another bunt, and although Garcia managed to get the runner at first this time, Montero scored and gave the Cubs their second run of the series. A single by Dexter Fowler brought in a third run, and then Jorge Soler won the game for the Cubs (as it transpired) with a home run to center field that carried over Jason Heyward’s head and into the right-center-field bleachers.

Before he left the game in the bottom of the seventh for defensive replacement Chris Denorfia, Soler did his best to make his manager look smart by starting him against a tough lefty in Garcia. Besides the double in the first and the home run in the second, Soler walked twice and averaged six pitches per plate appearance. For Cubs’ fans, that’s highly encouraging to see; Soler’s plate discipline has been something of a moveable feast this season. After starting the season with a strong 8.8 percent April walk rate, Soler’s discipline faded as he began chasing pitches on the outer half of the zone: he walked around five percent of the time in May, June, and July. For the last two months, the discipline has slowly returned, and Soler brought an 11 percent September walk rate into St. Louis in Saturday.

The other standout offensive performer on the day spent his night on the other side of the chalk lines, making the sparkling plays up the middle, and failing—on more than one occasion—to do simple well. Kolten Wong finished the night 1-for-3, with a home run, but hit the ball hard to center in the seventh inning, ending the frame and stranding Molina on first base. On the other side of the ball, Wong was more of a mixed bag: he committed the key error in the second inning, failed to cleanly complete the transfer on a potential double play in the seventh, but then ended that same inning with a beautiful snag to rob Starlin Castro of an RBI.

That’s what this game came down to, in the end. The Cubs made the routine plays look easy, and the Cardinals didn’t make them at all. Given St. Louis’s record, you wouldn’t think that’s typical for the team, but here’s the thing: the Cardinals aren’t a very good defensive team. Compare their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) to the Cubs’, month by month:


Chicago Cubs

St. Louis Cardinals



















This is a really easy statistic to understand: positive numbers are good, negative numbers are bad. And, recently the Cardinals have been very poor, while the Cubs have been off-the-charts good. It showed up tonight, and put the Cubs in position to take a 2-1 series lead with Jake Arrieta on the mound Monday night at Wrigley.

It won’t all be down to Arrieta, of course: Trevor Cahill made a name for himself with a dominant eighth inning, and Travis Wood put up 2 â…“ shutout innings after relieving Hendricks in the fifth. Are you surprised by those performances? You shouldn’t be. Cahill, for his part, has a 2.12 ERA as a Cub, and the Cubs’ pen as a whole had a 2.45 ERA in the final month of the season—the best mark in baseball, and by far the best in the National League. North Side pitching is for real, thanks in large part to the efforts of pitching coach Chris Bosio, and it’ll make life very tough for Cardinals’ hitters in Chicago.

The guys on the bump for St. Louis are a little bit more in question. Garcia was lifted entering the third in favor of Lance Lynn (the Cardinals later announced that Garcia had a ‘stomach virus’), which (despite Mike Matheny’s protestations that Saturday was Lynn’s ‘throw day’ anyway) means his status as the Game Four starter is somewhat in doubt. Carlos Villanueva, the St. Louis long man, was also forced to throw a couple of innings, and Adam Wainwright, whose presence in the bullpen has loomed like a shadow over the series, got some action as well. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting that Matheny might elect to go back to John Lackey in Game Four, if Lynn can’t make his start, Tyler Lyons may be an option as well.

Those, though, are questions for another day. Saturday night, the Cubs put the horrors of Game One behind them and brought the series home in time to get their ace on the mound. Yes, the long ball and starting pitching helped, but for the most part they did it by executing the simple plays when they needed to. The Cardinals weren’t able to do the same, and are left to spend Saturday night contemplating the dramatic insufficiency of the sixty feet, six inches that will separate them from Jake Arrieta come Monday.

Thank you for reading

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Good piece but you messed up the innings a bit. Hendricks got pulled in the 5th I think and Cahill pitched the 8th, not the 7th. He looked sharp though
TBS called that play a safety squeeze, not a suicide squeeze.