Báez blast rewards Cubs' 'pen in series win

May 24th, 2021

The string of zeros pieced together by the Cubs' pitching staff on Sunday night set up another signature moment for . It put the dynamic shortstop in position to admire what proved to be a game-deciding blast.

In the 10th inning, Báez broke a deadlock in St. Louis, launching a two-run homer off Cardinals closer Alex Reyes to power the Cubs to a 2-1 win over their rivals at Busch Stadium. Báez walked slowly out of the box, casually dropping his bat as he watched the ball soar out to center field.

"Guys fought to the end," Cubs manager David Ross said, "It's kind of been the character of this group. Continue to not give up."

That was on full display from the Cubs' bullpen, which worked the final five innings and has not surrendered an earned run since May 15. Closer Craig Kimbrel punctuated the win with a four-out appearance, which included only the second at-bat of his career.

The win, which helped the North Siders pull within two games of the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central, had its pivotal moment in the seventh. That is when Cubs setup man Ryan Tepera pulled off an escape act that had him pumping his fist, shouting and bounding off the mound.

"Really big. Really big," Báez said. "We trust him. We trust all the guys out of the bullpen. I think Tepera right now is feeling all his pitches."

Edmundo Sosa (infield single) and Lane Thomas (walk) got things rolling for St. Louis in the home half of the seventh against Cubs righty Tommy Nance. At that juncture, bench coach Andy Green (filling in for Ross, who was ejected in the fourth for arguing the strike zone) turned to Tepera.

Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright -- in the midst of a vintage, eight-inning performance -- attempted a sacrifice bunt, which Tepera swiftly gloved. On the play, the pitcher fired to third baseman David Bote, who stretched to make the catch before falling off the bag.

Sosa was deemed safe and the Cubs were out of challenges, following an upheld call earlier in the game.

"I think we had him at third," Báez said.

With the bases loaded and no outs, Tommy Edman then chopped a Tepera pitch to second baseman Nico Hoerner, who quickly fired to catcher Willson Contreras for a forceout at home. Tepera then set down Paul Goldschmidt (popout to Contreras) and struck out Nolan Arenado to stun the St. Louis crowd.

"It was big time," Ross said. "Tep's been coming up big. Our bullpen guys have been coming up big all year. You continue to lean on those guys and they keep answering the bell."

Following five shutout frames by Zach Davies, the Cubs' bullpen did not flinch until the 10th, when Arenado delivered a sacrifice fly against Kimbrel. That scored the inning's automatic runner, so it did not go into the book as an earned run.

Over the past eight games, Chicago's relief corps has allowed just the one unearned run over 25 2/3 innings. During that stretch, the group has piled up 34 strikeouts against nine walks with 11 hits allowed, dropping the bullpen's season ERA to 3.02 from 3.51.

The Cubs' bullpen has spun a 1.89 ERA overall in May.

"They just continue to feed off each other," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said prior to Sunday's game. "We've got a really good group of veteran guys. Guys that have been around the game for a while, have been in different roles."

The group has been anchored by a resurgent Kimbrel, who has a 0.95 ERA to go along with a 43.2 percent strikeout rate. Ross has leaned on Tepera (2.95 ERA in 21 1/3 innings), Andrew Chafin (2.49 ERA in 21 2/3 innings) and Dan Winkler (0.59 ERA) as his main setup options.

Younger arms like Keegan Thompson (no earned runs allowed through seven relief innings) and Justin Steele (2.03 ERA before landing on the injured list) helped stabilize things. Arms like Dillon Maples, Rex Brothers and Nance have provided stories of perseverance.

"The bullpen's settling in and doing what they know how to do," Davies said. "It's comfortable as a pitcher to get your work done and then hand it off and know what comes next."

What came next on Sunday night -- making all the work by the arms pay off -- was some heroics from Báez.

"All the way around -- really good job," Ross said. "And Javy coming up with the big home run."