“Talking about D-peat, I like the way we’re catching the ball,” Maddon said of what he has seen in camp, especially when he discounts outfield play because of the often tough conditions in Arizona. “I think we’ve been looking really good on the dirt. That’s what I want us to really focus on, the defense, and I think it’s been outstanding.”
Most of you know that Maddon is referring to a defense of the World Series title, which is contingent on a repeat performance of the Cubs’ historically elite defense behind a superb rotation. We’ve talked up the Cubs’ philosophy of putting good defenders behind the right types of pitchers since Theo Epstein took over baseball operations, and it seems that the philosophy has worked very well in practice given the run prevention over the past season. A few hiccups aside (it’s still early on in the season and guys are still trying to get into a groove), the defense has kept the Cubs competitive in both games so far as the offense is still working to get the big hit out of the gate.
Wednesday’s rainout means we have to wait another day to see whether the Cubs can grab the early division lead, but we can take a look at three very strong (and one would argue, spectacular) plays from Tuesday that directly changed the outcome of the game. As MLB and Statcast get to be more commonplace, sometimes the fun gets sucked out of the play that we think looked great through our lying eyes, but the point is that the out was converted and we can move on after cheering despite the numbers.
This batted ball had extra bases written all over it if Heyward had faltered or misjudged the ball. As you can tell from the trajectory, it was ticketed for the gap, but Heyward ran pretty much full speed to get to the spot and then had to make a well-timed leap to snag the ball before it landed. If Heyward didn’t get it on the leap, Carpenter had an easy double and possibly a triple once the ball bounced to the wall.
A couple innings later, Albert Almora Jr. made quite possibly the play of the game (to that point):
It’s difficult to know whether the ball would have cleared the wall, but it almost certainly would have bounced off the top of the wall, and then it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it would bounce over or back into the field. Almora tracked it all the way, camped underneath, and then leaped at the right time to preserve the Cubs lead, or at the minimum, keep the game-tying run from getting into scoring position.
Finally, Javier Baez, after being charged with a couple errors that were dubious given the extreme difficulty and non-routine context of the play, secured the final out on another close play that might have gone either way:
I’ll be honest with you; I can’t tell if it’s safe or out. I’m glad they called Kolten Wong out, and confirmed the call after the challenge, but the ball was hit so sharply that it might as well have been a hit. It could have been runners at the corners with two down, or could have resulted in the tying run had there been a misplay at any point. Fortunately, Wong hit it right to Javy, and Javy being Javy showed supreme range to even get to the ball, and great arm to secure the out before (maybe?) Wong crossed the bag.
We’ve talked about how we expect the Cubs to repeat as division champions, and if they ultimately do pop the champagne sometime in September, it will have been due in large part to their defense yet again.