ATLANTA -- Thursday was supposed to be a much-needed day off for the Cubs. But due to a rainout in May, Chicago finds itself in a stretch with 23 games in as many days, with Thursday beginning an 11-game, four-city road trip.Despite the tough straits, the Cubs found a way
ATLANTA -- Thursday was supposed to be a much-needed day off for the Cubs. But due to a rainout in May, Chicago finds itself in a stretch with 23 games in as many days, with Thursday beginning an 11-game, four-city road trip.
Despite the tough straits, the Cubs found a way to emerge victorious once again in a 5-4 nail-biter against the Braves at SunTrust Park. Clutch hitting from Benjamin Zobrist, Willson Contreras and Thomas La Stella -- who ripped a pinch-hit go-ahead homer in the sixth -- and more stunning defense from Javier Baez delivered the win, which pushed Chicago to 8-2 during the tough stretch.
"It's important that we came into this game with the attitude that we did because no one wanted to come back to Atlanta and play one and then go up to Philly," center fielder Albert Almora Jr. said. "Today was supposed to be an off-day. Enjoy it with friends and family, whatever the case may be. We took it with a good stride, coming to play baseball, have a lot of fun doing it and come out with a win. It's an awesome feeling."
The Cubs maintained their 4 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central. Their clutch play also pushed them to 9-2 in their last 11 one-run games and 22-19 in such games on the season.
"It is very big," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "All these one-run, tightly-contested games like this against really good teams, they matter. They make you feel pretty good when you leave town. We know it's a daunting schedule. I think we're in pretty good shape physically. Coming into this game I thought we looked pretty fresh. I like the energy tonight a lot."
The Cubs were able to scratch across several runs early, stringing together long innings against Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Zobrist led off the second with a double down the first-base line, Jason Heyward took a hit-by-pitch, and the runners advanced on a balk. Contreras drove one in on a groundout to second, and Kyle Schwarber followed him up with a ground ball that Ozzie Albies threw away to score Heyward.
Chicago had seven batters come up the following inning as well, this time with Anthony Rizzo drawing a walk before Zobrist singled to put runners on the corners. Once again, Contreras came through with a double down the third-base line.
The Cubs would eventually put two more runs across the board on La Stella's pinch-hit two-run homer in the sixth, and that would be enough thanks to a gutsy pitching performance by the entire pitching staff.
Cubs starter Mike Montgomery was effective the first two times through the order in his first start since landing on the 10-day disabled list on Aug. 17 with left shoulder inflammation. Through four innings, he held the Braves to one run on five hits while striking out six. However, Atlanta chased him in the fifth when Ronald Acuna Jr. and Johan Camargo singled and Freddie Freeman cleared the bases with a triple that effectively ended Montgomery's night.
Fortunately, the Cubs' bullpen picked up Montgomery without a hitch. Brandon Kintzler recorded a pair of outs in the fifth, while Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson, C.J. Edwards and Pedro Strop combined to hold the Braves scoreless on one hit the last four frames.
With one out in the ninth inning, pinch-hitter Ender Inciarte popped a tough fly ball into no man's land in center field that looked like it would fall in and put the tying run on base. But somehow Baez sprinted 94 feet backwards and was able to come up with a terrific over-the-back catch to put the proverbial nail in the Braves' coffin.
"It's one of those weird things when you're sitting in the dugout, you can see the trajectory of the ball, and you know that he's got a shot at it," Maddon said. "Immediately I thought Albert had a shot at it, but he was way too deep. They just cleared out and let Javy go. It's on the run, he timed it perfectly, it's not that easy. A lot of times, the ball is going to be bouncing on you when you're running that hard and running away. That is one of the better plays you're going to see."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
La Stella is familiar with the Braves after playing with them in 2014, and he made sure fans remembered him in his lone plate appearance. Pinch-hitting for the pitcher's spot in the sixth inning, La Stella swatted a high 1-1 fastball from Foltynewicz with an exit velocity of 102.1 mph, according to Statcast™, over the right-field fence. It was his first career pinch-hit home run and his third career homer in Atlanta. He now has 10 career dingers.
La Stella's pinch-hit homer gave him 20 hits in pinch-hit opportunities this season, which tied him for the Cubs' best single-season mark with Thad Bosley (1985) and Dave Clark ('97).
"He's always prepared," Maddon said. "He goes up there, and he's not concerned about failure. He just goes up there trying to make something happen. He's pretty good about that. If he sees his pitch, it normally gets hit very hard. Give him a lot of credit. I try to play him as often as we can to keep the bat fresh when he gets those opportunities, but he never complains."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Almora took over for Heyward in center field in the fifth inning after Heyward left with right hamstring tightness. Almora made his presence known quickly, as he had to run 86 feet to track down Lucas Duda's pinch-hit fly ball in the sixth inning and make a spectacular sliding catch on the warning track.
Jose Quintana (11-9, 4.33 ERA) faces the Phillies for the second time this season in Friday's series opener, which is the MLB Network Showcase Game. He previously held them to two runs over 5 2/3 innings with 10 strikeouts in June. Philadelphia counters with Nick Pivetta (7-10, 4.76). First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. CT at Citizens Bank Park.
Ben Weinrib is a contributor to MLB.com.