Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, left, and shortstop Addison Rusell

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Spiegel: These Are The Cubs You've Been Looking For

The Cubs' attention to detail has been exquisite in a five-game winning streak.

Matt Spiegel
May 01, 2018 - 11:37 am
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By Matt Spiegel--

(670 The Score) On the first inarguably beautiful night of the year, first place in the National League Central officially went to the team everyone believes will own it in the end.

With apologies to Ben Kenobi, these are the Cubs you’re looking for.

Paint the Milwaukee Brewers as failed Stormtroopers with the best maleficent intentions, only to be Jedi mind-tricked into forgetting how to produce a run in three games of the Cubs' four-game sweep.

As for the Colorado Rockies, they’re just next up in the path toward the Death Star of an MLB postseason. If the Cubs play like this when they get there, Darth Strasburg and Grand Moff Altuve may not stand a chance.

Clearly, this five-game winning streak to start a Wrigley Field homestand for the Cubs is the kind of run that makes you want to force flimsy metaphors. Sue me.

But man, this has been satisfying. The Cubs starting pitchers give up nothing -- not a single earned run has been allowed in their last 33 2/3 innings. So clear is the internal competition and collective momentum that Tyler Chatwood was a popular fantasy baseball pickup Sunday morning. And by evening, the specter of seven shutout innings from the No. 5 starter didn’t seem remotely out of place.

The bullpen arms, especially Carl Edwards Jr. and Brandon Morrow, have been dominant and efficient. The Cubs now have a 14-0 record when entering the seventh inning with a lead. Even as Morrow has admittedly struggled with his "feel" on his four-seam fastball, he and Edwards have combined to be among the best setup/closer combo in the game so far.

Team defense has been near uniformly stellar and often spectacular, led by the dependable brilliance of Albert Almora in center field. Almora's steady contact in the lead-off spot and ever-expanding highlight reel of catches on the run have had a massive impact on the state of this team in myriad ways. Yes, Joe Maddon should have turned to this earlier.

Perhaps most satisfying to baseball (and Star Wars?) nerds has been the Cubs' aggressive, intuitive base-running. All of these parts of team play have shown the truth as it rises to the surface.

Lots of these Cubs know how to play this game better than most.

Take the Cubs' 3-2 hard-fought win over the Rockies on Monday night. In the first, Almora made yet another running, leaping catch in the left-center gap, and most of us would have been more surprised if he didn’t come down with it. Jon Lester’s understated-but-appreciative golf clap from the mound is what it looks like when a leader expects the teammates behind him to make great plays.

With Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward all deserving time right now and Ian Happ needing his reps in the rotation to refind his groove, Addison Russell has been marginalized a bit. Javier Baez’s bat makes him a must-start, at either middle infield spot. Baez is now as skilled and nearly as reliable as Russell at shortstop. Baez is so clearly an emerging star made for these times that it can be easy to forget the potential still lurking within the 24-year-old Russell.  Entering play Sunday, Russell had gone 3-of-20 over his last seven games, coming off the bench in two of them. He's since gone 4-of-9 over his past two games.

On Sunday, Russell led off the fifth inning against Brewers right-hander Zach Davies by taking a two-seam fastball on the outside corner down the right-field line for a triple. He then scored on Chatwood’s single. With the bases loaded and a 2-0 count in the sixth inning, Russell made great contact on a sacrifice fly to center to drive in the game’s other run in Chicago's 2-0 win.

On Monday night, Russell had an RBI single in the second inning to open the scoring and also reached on an infield hit to lead off the fifth. Then, on an Ian Happ bloop to center, Russell flashed the instincts that we see when he’s locked in. That ball was tough to read, and there was no time to look for help from the coaches' box at third base. Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon tried to deke Russell into thinking the ball might even be caught. Nope. Russell made a great read, a fast turn and an assertive move to third base with no one out.

Maddon gives his players the freedom to disregard some silly unwritten rules, and when they do so with confidence, it’s beautiful. Kris Bryant had his first hit since returning from a concussion scare with a lead-off triple to start the sixth inning Monday night. The play was right in front of him, as left fielder Gerardo Parra chased a long carom off the wall back toward the infield. Bryant didn't hesitate and made it to third base easily ahead of a short throw. The once-forbidden thought of not making the first out at third base was of no worry, with fortune favoring the bold.

The past five Cubs games have had so many well-played moments like that, in every facet. On Thursday, it was Kyle Hendricks picking off Domingo Santana. Then Jose Quintana got Santana again Saturday. Almora robbed Lorenzo Cain of extra bases in deep center Thursday. Yu Darvish used a 64-mph Eephus pitch to strike out one of his eight victims in a bounce-back performance Friday. Zobrist made a great sliding play for a 4-3 out Saturday. Steve Cishek assertively got the lead runner at second base on a forceout in a one-run game in saving the game Monday evening. The inning before that, Anthony Rizzo erased a potential rally with two plays -- turning a hard grounder down the line into an easy 1-6 double play and by making a brilliant scoop of a low Bryant throw after he himself had made a diving stop behind third base.

I have three favorite plays from this streak. On Saturday, Heyward basically stole home against a napping Orlando Arcia on a two-run single by Tommy La Stella. Heyward is smarter than you, Milwaukee. 

Baez stole third base with flair and ingenuity, taking a big lead from second and breaking for third as soon as the Brewers’ catcher threw behind him. It’s the kind of stuff I used to pull in Roger Clemens MVP Baseball on Nintendo.  Dare your opponent to make the expected play, and take immediate advantage when they do. The Brewers had flown into town on the wings of an eight-game winning streak but had to leave feeling like suckers.

The play that exemplifies how well the Cubs are playing is from Monday night, with Rockies on first and second base and no one out in the fifth inning. Rizzo's defense against attempted sacrifice bunts is feared league-wide, and it has other benefits. Because he will pounce on even a good bunt and throw to third for the lead out, a baserunner like Noel Cuevas on second base has to make sure his secondary lead is long enough to have a legit chance to advance. Then, if a bunter misses the ball, Willson Contreras has all the cue he needs to throw behind Cuevas.  The throw was absolutely perfect, the Russell tag quick and efficient and it all happens because Rizzo has become a bunt defense weapon. 

In fact, this was born of Lester needing protection; Rizzo and David Ross had each side covered. With Contreras/Lester amongst the top 20 in caught stealing percentage as a combo in 2017, teams have learned that what once was a weakness for Lester has now basically become a strength.  Baserunners beware.

That’s a lot of context, teamwork, detail and even historical development packed into analysis of one play. But such is the endless depth of this game.

Especially when a team is playing it the right way.

The weather stayed as perfect as 2018 has had it, through the final out. In Gallagher Way, with the ninth-inning on the big screen, many kids played catch. 

Gallagher Way during the Cubs game
Matt Spiegel/670 The Score

Every one of them was definitely up past their bedtime. That’s how the game often infiltrates the hearts of the young. It gets mixed with the taste of hot dogs and ice cream, the joy of seeing your parents happy and the rare allowed rebellion of staying up way too late on a gorgeous night.

The Cubs are worth breaking some parenting rules right now.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.