What to make of Cubs' opener in the desert

May 14th, 2022

PHOENIX -- The Cubs arrived in Arizona this week having just played one of their best series of the season. The energy and drama present against the Padres earlier this week was followed by a frustrating loss on Friday night.

Cubs lefty Drew Smyly summed things up succinctly.

"I might pull some of my hair out tonight," Smyly said after the 4-3 loss to the D-backs at Chase Field. "That's just baseball. Sometimes you don't get the results you want."

Here are three takeaways from Friday's defeat in the desert:

1. Smyly's solid six innings
According to Statcast, Smyly entered his start on Friday in the 97th percentile in the Majors in terms of average exit velocity allowed. He continued to induce soft contact against the D-backs.

"I don't think they hit a ball hard after the third inning," Smyly said. "They just kept kind of fisting it into the holes. There's really not much I can do about it."

Over a season-high six frames, Smyly yielded an average exit velocity of 85.1 mph. For perspective, the MLB average was 88.8 mph going into this weekend. The Cubs lefty scattered 10 hits, including five of the extra-base variety, and was charged with four runs.

Smyly used his mix of cutters, curves and sinkers to generate contact, but there were multiple hits that eluded Cubs' defenders (defying the shift at a few turns). The pitcher said he felt it was his best outing of the season, even if his line would seem to indicate otherwise.

Cubs manager David Ross agreed with that assessment.

"Drew looked great," Ross said. "He pitched really well. Just a couple balls out of our reach, defensively."

2. Schwindel's hard hits
Two days after a phantom demotion to Triple-A Iowa -- injury setbacks necessitated a swift return -- Frank Schwindel came about a foot short of a go-ahead grand slam on Tuesday night in San Diego. The first baseman has continued to find the barrel since that moment.

"Frank, his first 100 at-bats didn't go probably as planned," Cubs hitting coach Greg Brown said. "But that [near grand slam] was a great at-bat to start his next 100 at-bats. I think you saw that spill over into the next day -- there's no doubt about it."

Schwindel's two singles on Friday night clocked in at 105.7 mph (off a Zach Davies changeup in the fourth) and 108.6 mph (off a Kyle Nelson fastball in the seventh) off the bat. Those followed a 104.9-mph double that drove in two runs on Wednesday.

"His BP [Friday], you're just seeing the ball come off the bat better," Brown said. "He's using the whole field. That way, he can go back to being a good hitter instead of having to chase hits. That's an important distinction."

3. Contreras' streaks snapped
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras reached base twice on Friday -- in the first via walk and in the eighth thanks to an error -- but he saw a pair of streaks come to a close.

Contreras was called out on strikes in the sixth on a borderline pitch, ending what had been a career-best-tying run of games (five) without a strikeout. The catcher also saw his five-game hitting streak conclude. The size of that stretch was modest, but the production was robust.

"That last series, I thought he carried us offensively," Ross said. "He was the tone-setter. Whenever we were going through a little bit of a lull, it seemed like his spot jump-started things when he got back up there."

In the five games leading up to Friday, Contreras went 11-for-17 (.647 average) with two homers, a triple, three walks and six runs scored. That performance boosted his season slash line to .304/.413/.522 from .227/.333/.387.

"[He] really prioritizes hard contact," Brown said. "He's done a great job. And even when his numbers weren't there necessarily at the beginning, he was steadfast on staying in the process of knowing that better days were coming."