Maybe it was only fitting that the culmination of this bizarre week of Cubs and Sox non-baseball would come down to the two left-handers who seemed at the center of every subplot of the week.
White Sox ace Chris Sale returning from his jersey-shredding suspension to start the last of four games between the teams Thursday.
And Aroldis Chapman, the controversial closer acquired by the Cubs Monday in a trade with the Yankees, finishing the four-game set with his first save as a Cub in Thursday’s 3-1 victory at Wrigley Field.
It was the first time this season Chapman has been called in the eighth inning – something he told the staff before the game he was willing to and something he was told might happen as the game reached the late innings.
“I was ready,” said Chapman, who took over with two out, the score 2-1, and the potential tying run at third.
He struck out Melky Cabrera swinging at a 102-mph fastball to the gasps of a full-house crowd still getting used to triple-digit scoreboard velocity readings.
Then he finished the game with a 1-2-3 ninth for a four-out save – his 21st of the season overall.
Replacing Hector Rondon with the lefty Chapman also had the effect of turning around the switch-hitting Cabrera to his slightly weaker said – something manager Joe Maddon said never factored in the decision.
“It’s just different [with Chapman],” Maddon said. “I throw all that out.”
Chapman found a greater comfort zone in his second appearance for the Cubs, both in terms of the more natural save situation and also a second day with Wrigley Field fans, some of whom got high fives from him Thursday.
“I feel really comfortable with them,” he said with the help of teammate Miguel Montero translating. “They make me feel [like they’re] proud of me when I go out there, with the fans actually cheering for me. It’s something I didn’t have in the past when I came here [as a Reds pitcher]. I’m pretty pumped to be part of it.”
Sale (14-4) didn’t have his All-Star sharpness after nine days between starts, but he pitched out of enough trouble to get through six innings, allowing just two runs. He struck out four and walked three.
In fact, Cubs starter John Lackey (8-7) out-pitched Sale in his six innings of work (pulled for a pinch-hitter in the seventh) for his first victory since June 8 – retiring 16 of 19 after allowing a first-inning run.
Facing and beating the White Sox ace?
“I’ve gone against a bunch of aces, man,” Lackey said. “Yeah, he’s a good pitcher. But you’ve got to handle your own business.”
For the second night in a row, former Cubs closer Rondon started the eighth to set up the Chapman finish – pushing Pedro Strop down the pecking order into Thursday’s scoreless seventh.
“It just shortens the game for the other team, and they know they only have so much time before the game is over, mentally,” said Ben Zobrist, who drove in the go-ahead run in the third. “That’s what [Chapman] does with our bullpen, is just takes it to that next level, where the game is at least an inning shorter.”
And where the end becomes must-watch baseball.
“It’s been a cool atmosphere,” Lackey said of the last two nights with Chapman finishing. “It was definitely something you want to tune in to see, for sure.”
Kris Bryant, who homered off Sale in the All-Star game the last time he saw him, nearly did it again in the first inning Thursday, following a leadoff walk by Dexter Fowler with a drive off the center field wall, just under the basket.
Fowler, who scored on the double, reached again leading off the third and scored again for the other run off Sale.
He was hit by a pitch just ahead of a Bryant walk. And one out later, Zobrist singled to center for the run.
Zobrist scored an eighth-inning insurance run, hitting a leadoff double into the right-field corner off Nate Jones, and continuing to third when Adam Eaton dropped the ball for an error. He scored on a one-out grounder to short by Addison Russell.
A 60-foot single by Tim Anderson turned into the only run against Lackey. Anderson topped a weak grounder down the third base line that died on the grass just fair for a one-out hit.
Cabrera followed with a run-scoring double.