CHICAGO -- The Cubs have been able to count on Wrigley Field this season. When things have gone awry on the road, returning to the Friendly Confines has consistently allowed the team to find its footing again.
That was true again this weekend, when the Cubs came home after a gut-punch of a road trip and capped off a three-game sweep of the rival Brewers with a 7-2 win on Sunday in front of the North Side crowd. Yu Darvish was stellar on the mound, Jason Heyward continued to be a catalyst at the top of the order and Chicago improved to 39-18 at home on the year.
"To show up every day here," Heyward said, "you know what the fans are about and that's something you can't take for granted, because it doesn't happen everywhere. It's just good. We feed off of that."
With the win, the Cubs ensured that they will remain ahead of the Cardinals and in first place atop the National League Central for another day. The sweep comes on the heels of a 3-6 road trip that dropped Chicago’s record to 21-33 away from home this year.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday's victory:
1. Darvish is dealing
Pitching while sick, Darvish racked up eight strikeouts against no walks in five innings. The right-hander leaned heavily on his cutter, throwing 48 on the afternoon and continuing to vary the shape and velocity of the pitch as he has done dating back to June.
Since June 10, Darvish has piled up 71 strikeouts against only seven walks in 59 2/3 innings. He has walked three percent of his total batters faced in that 10-start stretch. That is a dramatic decline from his first 13 starts, during which Darvish walked 14.9 percent of his total batters faced in 66 1/3 innings.
In the second half, Darvish has spun a 2.17 ERA with 38 strikeouts and two walks in 29 innings.
"He's pitching as well as anybody in the league right now," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Everybody's going to talk about all these other dudes, but right now, physically on a game-by-game basis, nobody's pitching better than he is."
2. For starters, no free passes
Including Darvish's five-inning effort on Sunday, Chicago's rotation has cruised through 143 consecutive batters without issuing a walk. The group has amassed 42 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings during that stretch.
Sunday marked the sixth game in a row that the Cubs' rotation did not allow a walk. According to research done for the Cubs by Ed Hartig, that marks the longest such streak in team history since at least 1905.
"It's really fun to watch," Maddon said. "When you make the other team earn that trip down to first base, that's wonderful to see."
Chicago's pitching staff finished with 15 strikeouts on Sunday, marking the team's most punchouts in a game with no walks since July 30, 2002, when it tallied 16 strikeouts and no walks against the Padres. The Cubs have at least eight strikeouts and two or fewer walks in seven straight games, which is tied for the longest such by stretch an MLB team since 1908.
3. Heyward leading the way
When Maddon talked to Heyward earlier this week about taking over as the leadoff hitter, the veteran outfielder only asked for patience from the manager. He wanted to adjust to the job knowing that things were not going to change after one rough day at the ballpark.
Heyward has adjusted to the new responsibility swiftly.
"He's leading us," Maddon said. "He's absolutely leading the offense right now."
In Sunday's win, Heyward led off the bottom of the first inning by drilling a first-pitch two-seamer from Brewers starter Adrian Houser to center field for a home run. One frame later, Heyward ripped a pitch from Houser into the right-field corner and legged out a run-scoring triple. The outfielder knocked in another run with a fielder's choice groundout later in the game.
Through his first five games atop the order, Heyward has turned in a .250/.318/.700 slash line with four extra-base hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances. It is an extremely small sample size, but with Heyward at the top and Nicholas Castellanos now in the mix, Chicago has been able to lengthen a lineup that has looked top heavy all season.
That could be critical for a Cubs lineup that Maddon has been trying to get back to a more varied approach.
"I'm glad that we came out of this series and we were able to get three wins," Heyward said. "We're all just trying to make sure we can do everything we can. However that fits in, whatever that looks like, we're going to try to get it done, because we know what we want to do."