BY Dan McGrath
October — howling winds, 50-degree temperatures — returned to Wrigley Field on Saturday, embellishing pre-series speculation that four games between the Cubs and the Washington Nationals constituted a playoff preview.
If so, it looks like a mismatch. The Cubs have taken the first three, with the peculiarities of Wrigley claiming some credit.
On Friday, Anthony Rizzo’s towering drive clipped a flag atop the right-field foul pole as it left the ballpark. The umpires’ fair-ball ruling rewarded Rizzo with his 10th home run.
On Saturday, the Nats’ Bryce Harper ran out of room as he chased Addison Russell’s bases-loaded fly ball toward the wall down the right-field line in the seventh inning. The ball dropped amid a flock of seagulls, ticked off Harper’s glove and landed fair for a two-run double that broke a 5-all tie.
The Cubs went on to an 8-5 victory, their sixth straight and 23rd in the 29th game of what’s taking on the look of one of those seasons.
“I thought it would be tough to score runs today with the wind blowing like it was,” Joe Maddon said.
The wind was a disruptive presence all day, knocking down at least two would-be homers and adding drama to several normally routine plays. But these Cubs are finding ways around such things.
Before the game, Maddon extolled the virtues of backup infielder Tommy La Stella, who was 5-for-8 with a triple and a homer in the first two games of the series but took a seat Saturday against left-handed Nats starter Gio Gonzalez.
Supplanting La Stella as most valuable understudy was Ryan Kalish, who steered a two-run pinch-hit single past shortstop in the sixth inning, giving the Cubs a 4-3 lead.
“The energy I felt when that happened … you can’t describe it,” Kalish said. “This is what I’ve been working for.”
Kalish, 28, has undergone spinal fusion and microfracture knee surgery since breaking in with the Red Sox as a touted prospect in 2010. A Cub for part of 2014, he sat out last season, then signed a minor league contract with the team in spring training. A hot start at Iowa (.367) prompted a call-up when Matt Szczur went on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring.
“It’s a huge accomplishment in my life to share in this, no matter how big or how small,” Kalish said.
Maddon remembers Kalish as an A.L. East rival from his Tampa days. “He was a good ballplayer before he got banged up,” Maddon said. “The guys know what he’s been through, and they’re really happy for him. You don’t have the record we have unless you’re getting contributions across the board.”
The Seattle Mariners were 22-7 after 29 games when they set the MLB record with 114 victories in 2001 … Bryce Harper is 1-for-4 with seven walks in the series and is on pace for 130 walks as opposing pitchers continue to work around him … The Cubs are 8-1 against fellow contenders Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Washington … With Jason Hammel lifted after five innings, Maddon was able to get four innings of two-hit, two-walk pitching from his underworked bullpen. Pedro Strop struck out all three hitters he faced.