By Jerry Burns
Wrigley Playing Large
Braves 3 @ Cubs 9 — After playing like a pitcher’s park for most of the season, the Cubs are enjoying Wrigley Field’s return to occasional hitter’s haven status. Chicago belted five home runs Sunday, with Dexter Fowler starting the party to lead off the game. Kris Bryant’s two-homer game and Miguel Montero’s three-run blast were the real killers. Kyle Schwarber broke an 0-for-11 start to the series with a solo shot. While I’m naturally wary of a team’s offense being sustained by home runs, it’s hard to argue with the Cubs’ recent run. In their last 10 games they have five games of three home runs or more, three of those at Wrigley, and now have back-to-back big home run outings after hitting four Saturday. They’ll eventually have to generate runs without the long-ball (see: night games at AT&T Park), but let’s enjoy the ride.
Player of the game: Kris Bryant (3-for-4, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 4 R)
20 Games Over .500
The last time the Cubs were 20 games over .500 was 1945. Put those pennants away, folks, there’s a long way to go for the Cubs to return to the World Series. The most important part of this figure is the Cubs’ four-game sweep of the Braves, which means they controlled their own destiny as the Pirates and Giants played out a four-game set in the Wild Card race. Chicago exits Sunday up six games on the Giants, while training Pittsburgh by three.
Back on Track
After a few rough starts, Jason Hammel returned to first-half form Sunday. The scary thing with Hammel as the Cubs make a playoff push is how bad his second half was in Oakland in 2014. The good news, his year-to-date numbers are very close to his full season numbers last year. From a Saber standpoint, Hammel is slightly better — so far — with a 3.64 FIP and 3.40 xFIP (compared to 3.92/3.57 in 2014). He is also striking out more and walking less. Beyond that, his peripherals: BABIP, ground ball, home run and left-on-base rates are within 4 percent or less of last year, spelling mostly good news. Hammel’s first half of 2014 was the anomaly, and this year he’s been more level throughout. Expect much of the same: Some good, some bad, but a good option for a No. 3 starter if the Cubs find themselves deeper than the Wild Card game.
Down on the Farm
At the big club, Addison Russell left Sunday’s game with groin tightness, begging the question: If he has to be out for an extended time, does Javier Baez get the call? If so, he’ll split time with Starlin Castro at shortstop and Chris Coghlan at second. This has been a trying year for Baez with his sister’s death delaying his season and an injury derailing a hot start. But in 55 games at Triple-A he’s lowered his strikeout rate to 25.2 percent and maintained the same walk rate. Along with that, Baez has hit .304 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, 15 stolen bases and a wRC+ of 137. Very impressive. I don’t trust him to be the top prospect that Bryant, Schwarber and Russell are panning out to be, but his hot bat would be welcome with this homer-happy squad. And, it might not be a bad idea to make him playoff eligible.
What’s On Tap?