It had the makings of a game-changing inning for the Royals on Wednesday night. Cubs starter Yu Darvish found himself working with no outs, runners on the corners and Whit Merrifield in the batter's box in the third inning.
Then, David Bote came to the rescue.
"That play was the play of the day," Darvish said.
Early in the Cubs' 6-1 win at Kauffman Stadium, Bote made the type of defensive play that has been a steady part of the North Siders' 10-2 run out of the gates. Chicago's defense has also played a role in the incredible start by the rotation, which kept rolling with Darvish's latest effort, too.
Since 1901, this marks the fourth time that a Cubs team has won at least 10 of the first 12 games, joining the 1969 (11-1), 1934 (10-2) and 1907 (10-2) clubs.
In the third, Merrifield chopped a knuckle-curve from Darvish into the dirt, sending it bouncing over the mound. The Cubs' pitcher jumped and nicked the ball with his glove -- slightly altering its path. Shortstop Javier Báez said he called for the ball, but Bote was in perfect position to take over.
"Oh man," Cubs manager David Ross said. "That was one of those tense moments in the game, too."
Bote made a quick back-handed grab on the baseball on a short hop, but he managed to keep his right foot on second base just long enough for a forceout. The second baseman then threw across his body on the run to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to complete a crucial double play.
"None of us in the dugout could believe he stepped on the bag," Ross said. "I thought they would challenge it, and they never did. And then the turn, I mean, that was just a nice, smooth play."
Maikel Franco scored from third base, but Darvish followed with a strikeout of Jorge Soler to limit Kansas City to the lone run in the frame. The Cubs responded with two runs in the following inning and Darvish settled into a groove from there, logging seven innings to lower the Cubs' rotation ERA to 1.95 through 12 games.
It is far too early to begin drawing comparisons to 2016, but that World Series-winning Cubs team was known for its historic defense and ability to generate weak contact as a pitching staff. Through a dozen games this season, those have been two driving forces for Chicago's success.
Darvish is typically a strikeout artist, but he finished with only four in the Cubs' sixth win in a row. On the 20 balls in play Darvish allowed, the Royals averaged only 85.4 mph in terms of average exit velocity. Entering the night, the Cubs' rotation had given up a Major League-leading average exit velocity of 83.6 mph.
"We feel confident of the ball getting put in play," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "And when you have confidence in generating weak contact -- or even generating hard contact, and it's going to be hit at somebody or an athletic defender is going to take care of it -- it gives you the confidence that, no matter what the count is, you can execute the pitch that you want in that situation."
According to Fangraphs, the Cubs already had 15 defensive runs saved this season going into Wednesday's game. A year ago, Chicago had minus seven DRS in a season that saw the franchise' four-year playoff streak come to an end.
Báez is the anchor at shortstop -- after leading all MLB infielders with 19 outs above average in '19. Kris Bryant has looked improved at third base, following a change in his pre-pitch setup. Rizzo has continued to play Gold Glove-caliber defense at first, while Nico Hoerner and Jason Kipnis have done well at second. Bote has moved between second and third.
The addition of the designated hitter in 2020 has also allowed Ross the ability to better map out his outfield alignment, both for the start of games and late-game strategy.
So far, the work put in by the players, combined with the strategies being utilized by the coaching staff -- a group led by Hottovy, bench coach Andy Green (infielders), third-base coach Will Venable (outfielders) and Brad Mills (assistant director of advance scouting and run prevention) -- have paid off.
"We want to play both sides of the ball," Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said recently. "We want to be complete as a team -- be the best we can in that area. Because, it does give us a spark. It does take some pressure off."