Three takeaways from Cubs' win vs. Cards

September 28th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- The fans who filled Busch Stadium on Friday night let out a collective roar when the out-of-town scoreboard noted that the Rockies were beating the Brewers. The Cubs then settled into an unfamiliar role of spoiler, piecing together a seven-run seventh to quiet the crowd.

That late offensive flurry powered an 8-2 victory for a Cubs team that no longer has any October implications on the line. Instead, Chicago is already eyeing an important offseason and finishing out the regular-season slate with 2020 on its mind.

“We played really well in a playoff atmosphere. I was really proud of our guys,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I was watching the scoreboard. I saw what was going on.”

Friday’s win snapped the Cubs’ nine-game losing streak and made things a little more complicated for the rival Cardinals. St. Louis essentially knocked the North Siders out of contention last weekend with a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field. Now, the Cubs’ victory kept the Cardinals one game ahead of the Brewers in the National League Central race with two games to play.

Here are three takeaways from Friday's win, viewed through the 2020 lens.

1) Mills making his pitch
Cubs starter used a down-and-in changeup to freeze slugger Paul Goldschmidt for a called strikeout in the fifth inning. And then, the rookie ended his outing with an elevated heater that eluded Marcell Ozuna's bat. Those punchouts applied the period on an impressive campaign for the right-hander, who fanned nine overall on the night.

“Sir Alec Mills once again demonstrated why he is of Major League Baseball timber,” Maddon said. “That was another outstanding performance on his part.”

The Cubs used Mills as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter at various points this season. The club took a close look at him in September, and the righty responded with a 1.15 ERA and 24 strikeouts against four walks in 15 2/3 innings in the final month. On the year, Mills has a 2.75 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 36 innings.

On one hand, Mills has probably put himself on the map for the Cubs' 2020 bullpen, which suddenly has a pile of intriguing in-house options. Mills' performance this season may also have earned some trust as a possibility for the rotation, as a legitimate next-man-up option at the very least.

“It’s always a good thing to finish the year on a good note,” said Mills, who was asked if he felt he could compete for a rotation spot next year. “Who knows? That's their job. I'll come ready to go and let them decide.”

2) The center of attention
Outfielder has endured a trying season. He did not hit lefties as well as expected (.532 OPS), hindering Maddon's ability to get the most out of matchup-based spots in the lineup. Almora's defensive numbers also took a hit (minus five Defensive Runs Saved) in center field.

In the fourth inning, Almora put all that to the side and pulled off one of the Cubs' best catches of the year. The center fielder ranged back to his right, jumped at the wall and reached over to rob a home run from Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. It was one of two highlight-reel grabs on the day for Almora, who also took a hit away from Molina in the first.

“That's as good as you're going to get over a wall, period,” Maddon said. “And then he started cramping up, so then there goes Plan D or E, I don't even know what it was at that point.”

Almora exited the game with lower-half cramping in the sixth, and Maddon used both Tony Kemp and Happ in center to finish the game. Addressing the outfield -- and, specifically, center field -- will be on the Cubs' to-do list for 2020. Almora could be a non-tender candidate this winter, a candidate to be traded or a returnee as a role player for Chicago.

“Right now, it's just trying to stay healthy and I'll try to finish on the best note possible,” Almora said. “Like, today's a great team win and obviously, it's been a rough stretch for us. These are big games, honestly.”

3) Happ finishing strong
When Kris Bryant's season came to an end via a right ankle injury last weekend, it opened the door for more regular playing time for . He has taken advantage of the opportunity, giving the Cubs a strong late-season surge to analyze as the team weighs how to approach its roster for next year.

In Friday's win, Happ delivered a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning off St. Louis righty Giovanny Gallegos and added two doubles on the night. His second double of the night knocked in a run during the Cubs’ seven-run outburst, which also featured a three-run homer from Robel Garcia.

“Happy's been around for it. Robel has not,” Maddon said of playing in a playoff-like environment. “But, the whole group really rose to the occasion.”

When the night was over, Happ increased his slash line to .400/.419/.933 in his past dozen games. Since returning from a season-opening stint at Triple-A Iowa, Happ has experienced up-and-down results.

As the Cubs ponder next season's roster composition, the front office will have to figure out how Happ fits in the defensive puzzle. He has played third base down the stretch in place of Bryant, but has mostly played the outfield this year. Chicago has also given Happ a look at second base in spurts.