CHICAGO -- The idea going into this season was that this iteration of the Cubs would have a foundation built around solid pitching and pristine defense. The Rays can now attest to what it looks like when that vision plays out on the field.
On Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs used a solid start from Kyle Hendricks, four stellar innings of relief and a handful of highlight-reel defensive plays to pick up a 2-1 victory over baseball’s best team. It was the second pitching-led win in a row for a Chicago team trying to claw its way out of its early season hole.
“These are the kind of wins we should be able to start piling on, hopefully,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
That “hopefully” tacked on to Ross’ thought was important, because the campaign has not played out as planned through two months. The bullpen has been a trouble area for the Cubs, and the offense has been a run-production roller-coaster with a lack of big hits in clutch moments.
Heading into what looked like a daunting series with a Rays club featuring the Majors’ top offense, the Cubs were an MLB-worst 2-10 in one-run games. The North Siders also had a 3-20 record when scoring fewer than four runs. In the previous series, Chicago was outscored, 25-10, in a sloppy sweep at the hands of the Reds.
But this is baseball -- that beautiful, unpredictable, probability-defying beast.
Naturally, the Cubs picked up a 1-0 win on Monday behind a brilliant shutout by Marcus Stroman. And then Hendricks and a well-rested bullpen carried that feeling into Tuesday, when Randy Arozarena’s RBI single in the fifth inning accounted for Tampa Bay’s lone run.
“Winning those two back-to-back feels really good,” Ross said.
Prior to Monday, the Cubs’ bullpen had turned in an MLB-worst 8.05 ERA over the previous 14 games. Ross tested out a variety of combinations both in the middle innings and back-end scenarios, searching for a fix. The nine-inning Memorial Day masterpiece by Stroman could not have arrived at a better time.
“[We] got to reset the ‘pen as a whole and let them guys just breathe for a second,” Ross said. “Nobody even had to come out of that thing out there yesterday.”
That helped Hendricks -- two starts into a return from the IL after nearly a year-long comeback from a shoulder issue -- not only prepare for how to attack Tampa Bay’s lineup, but to pitch knowing he had a full bullpen available behind him. The veteran gave the Cubs five solid innings.
Behind Hendricks, Julian Merryweather (sixth), Mark Leiter Jr. (seventh) and Adbert Alzolay (eighth and ninth) limited the Rays to a 1-for-13 showing. It was punctuated by Alzolay, who struck out four and faced the minimum in his six-out save. The righty flexed and howled after recording the game’s final out.
“He’s unbelievable, man,” Hendricks said. “He’s locked in right now. You could tell -- he just had that look in his eye.”
Along the way, Chicago’s defense made a handful of critical plays to halt the Rays’ advances.
With one out and runners on first and second in the first inning, Hendricks induced a grounder up the middle off the bat of Brandon Lowe. Second baseman Nico Hoerner made a diving stop to knock the ball down and tried to flip it to the bag. The baseball slipped from his grasp and dropped to the dirt, but shortstop Dansby Swanson was already in pursuit.
Swanson retrieved the ball and fired to the plate as Wander Franco attempted to score from second. Catcher Yan Gomes gloved the relay and made a swift tag for an out -- a call that stood after a lengthy replay review. Hendricks went on to escape the frame unscathed.
“Dansby was able to pick him up,” Ross said. “I thought we were just clean in the infield.”
In the fourth inning, Harold Ramírez connected with a Hendricks pitch and sent a sinking line drive to right field. Seiya Suzuki charged in and made a slick sliding catch to snag the baseball before it met the grass.
“Seiya was incredible. I thought it was a hit all the way,” Cubs center fielder Mike Tauchman said. “He just came out of nowhere.”
Given the way the Cubs had played of late, these wins felt like they came out of nowhere. But this was always the perceived path to the win column, given how Chicago’s club was constructed.
“To win games,” Ross said, “we’re going to have to pitch, play defense, get some clutch hitting, which we haven’t had. And I think that’s indicative of our record.”