The Cubs bullpen has gone from a problem area to a seemingly automatic endgame.
Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman preserved a tight lead as the Cubs beat the White Sox 3-1 Thursday night in front of 41,157 fans at Wrigley Field, evening up the season series between the two Chicago teams.
Manager Joe Maddon got to employ his best-case scenario as John Lackey accounted for six innings before Strop pitched the seventh, Rondon got two outs in the eighth and then Chapman came in for the final four outs.
Rondon got into a little trouble as Tyler Saladino led off the eighth with a double into the left-field corner, but the former Cubs closer struck out Adam Eaton and got Tim Anderson to ground out.
With Melky Cabrera — who has been swinging a hot bat — up next, Maddon came out to replace Rondon with the new 105 mph closer.
Chapman didn't even mess around with offspeed stuff, just blowing the ball right by Cabrera to end the threat.
The Cubs tacked on a run in the bottom of the eighth as Ben Zobrist led off with a double, advanced to third on Adam Eaton's error and then scored on Addison Russell's ground out.
Dexter Fowler was his classic "you go, we go" self, scoring the Cubs' first two runs against Sox ace Chris Sale — first on an RBI double from Kris Bryant on the Cubs' second batter of the game and then later on Zobrist's single up the middle in the third inning.
Lackey allowed only the one run and it came in the first inning when Tim Anderson reached on an infield single and then scored on Cabrera's double into the right-field corner.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Akiem Hicks has spent the better part of his four-year NFL career intent on annihilating quarterbacks. The defensive lineman also has spent those four years in the presence of two of the greats of this or any NFL era – Drew Brees in New Orleans and Tom Brady in New England.
He has seen some of what makes them great. And since joining the Bears last March, Hick has seen similar traits in his current quarterback – Jay Cutler.
“They have those intangibles,” Hicks told CSNChicago.com on Thursday. “All the stats that you see – the 4,000-yard seasons, the 50-touchdown [seasons] – they also have things that people don’t get to really get to see all the time. It’s something when you’re close to it and see it all the time… . Tom Brady, for instance. This is a real leader.
“And I see the same qualities in Jay Cutler – somebody who knows how to motivate his guys, knows when to get on his guys’ heads, all that. You see it all the time in practice and then it translates into the game. Guys believe in them more.”
Brady has won twice as many Super Bowls than Cutler has playoff games. The two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence.
But Hicks’ assessment of Cutler is not the first by a teammate to focus on the “L” word – Leadership. As Hicks says of Brady and Brees, outsiders do not see what teammates say. And that is the bigger point.
He wasn't as sharp as a knife, but Chris Sale was still pretty good in his return to the mound on Thursday night.
Following a nine-day layoff, including a five-game suspension for insubordination and destruction of team property, Sale pitched well enough for a victorious return. But John Lackey and the Cubs bullpen were even better and the White Sox fell 3-1 in front 41,157 at Wrigley Field and had to settle for a Crosstown Cup series split.
Sale, who also singled in two at-bats, allowed two runs and six hits with three walks in six innings. The White Sox dropped to 50-52 as they head to Minneapolis for a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins.
Nobody quite knew what to expect as Sale returned to his team for the first time since he was sent home Saturday for destroying the 1976 throwback uniforms the team was supposed to wear that night.
“It could go a lot of ways,” catcher Dioner Navarro said. “But I expect him to show up. He’s mature enough and he knows what he’s doing.
“It’s weird. It’s a crazy situation, but I think if somebody can handle it it’s him. Hopefully, he deals today and we won’t talk about this for a little bit.”
Wearing a suit for the road trip to Minneapolis, Sale smiled as he arrived in the visiting clubhouse at 4:42 p.m. Upon entering the constricted confines of the visiting clubhouse, Sale was greeted by a series of fist bumps and hugs. Seated on the floor, outfielder Melky Cabrera shouted “my man” and jumped up to bear hug Sale, stealing a second hug as the pitcher walked away. Todd Frazier and J.B. Shuck also instantly met Sale before he headed to his corner of the clubhouse and teammates Navarro, Matt Albers, Carlos Rodon and Tyler Saladino walked over, too.
With his return coming in the midst of the Crosstown Cup finale, teammates were uncertain what kind of atmosphere Sale would face at Wrigley.
“I know the crowd’s going to be a little crazy,” Frazier said. “I think everybody in the world kind of knows what happened, and we’re on the North Side, so we’re going to hear some crazy stuff here.”
About 40 minutes before first pitch, Sale began to warm up in right field. Near the end of his long-toss session with Navarro, Sale walked to the bullpen and handed a young girl wearing a Sale T-shirt a baseball. As he began to throw off the mound, a number of curious fans began to snap pictures with their phones (even a beer vendor briefly stopped). Another, wearing a green pinstriped Jon Garland White Sox jersey, took a selfie as Sale warmed up. Though a few wisecracks were made, the scene was relatively tame.
With Sale returning only hours before he took the mound, Ventura -- who hadn’t talked to his pitcher in several days -- didn’t expect the left-hander would have much time to address teammates. He thought Sale might talk to players a few at a time over the next few days, though Frazier believed it might happen before he pitched Thursday. Asked if he thought Sale would apologize, Frazier said: “That’s a good question. I think he knows what he did wrong. I think he’s a guy of his word. I think he understands how much winning means to him. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to him and, you know, he’s ready to go. He just wants to play. I’m sure he’ll talk to us before the game. Whatever he has to say, if it deals with winning, we’ll take it.”
The White Sox offered their All-Star a welcome back gift with an early run when Melky Cabrera doubled in a run in the first inning.
But Lackey found a rhythm and retired 16 of 19 after Cabrera’s double. No out was bigger than the last of the sixth inning as Lackey induced a pop up on the infield from Jose Abreu with the go-ahead run at first.
Down 2-1, the White Sox threatened once more in the eighth inning as Saladino doubled off Hector Rondon. Rondon recorded two outs before Aroldis Chapman took over and struck out Cabrera with the tying at third.
The effort was enough to outdo Sale, who was hurt by walks in the first and third innings.
Dexter Fowler drew a nine-pitch leadoff walk in the first inning and Kris Bryant, who homered off Sale in the All-Star Game earlier this month, nearly did it again, settled for an RBI double off the centerfield fence. Sale stranded the go-ahead run however, retiring Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras to keep it tied at 1.
After Sale hit Fowler and walked Bryant to start the the third, Zobrist hit a comebacker just past Sale in the third for an RBI single and a 2-1 Cubs lead.
But even though he wasn’t pinpoint, Sale never broke.
After stranding a runner at third base in the first inning, he did it again in the fifth. He also struck out pinch-hitter David Ross with two on in the sixth. Though it didn’t result in a victory, Sale gave the White Sox what they needed.
“He's a great kid,” Ventura said. “This doesn't change that. We've seen him do some really great stuff. I know I've done some stuff that I wouldn't want people to know. We're in an age where in what he's doing is his job, but sometimes you don't get that luxury. I think for him, he's just going to go pitch and we'll move on from there.”