For each of the six times he boomeranged between the Cubs and the minor leagues last season, Matt Szczur considered each trip a double-edged sword.
He desperately wanted to be part of a push for a National League pennant. But Szczur also understood each trip back down offered him playing time and the chance to improve.
Although he isn’t an every-day player, Szczur has become adept at rising to the occasion. So when manager Joe Maddon inserted Szczur into the leadoff spot Friday for the first time this season, Szczur answered the call.
“[I thought] give this guy the opportunity, and he’s going to do whatever he possibly can to take advantage of it,” Maddon said. “He pretty much stirred it up for the entire group today.”
Szczur homered twice in a game for the first time in his career, and the Cubs slugged five homers in all to drub the Cardinals 13-2 at Wrigley Field and win their 11th consecutive game.
The Cubs improved to 32 games above .500 and extended their Central Division lead over the second-place Cardinals to 14 games.
All that with starters Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist on the bench. Szczur and his fellow fill-ins didn’t missed a beat.
“Twenty-five guys are here, and 25 guys are going to produce every day no matter what position you’re in,” said Szczur, who went 3-for-4 with four runs scored and three RBI. “Joe mixes and matches, and today he pretty much gave all the starters a day off and we’re still able to put up 13 runs.”
The positional mashup resulted in each of the Cubs’ outfielders homering. Rookie Willson Contreras, who started in left field, gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead in the second inning with a three-run blast that helped chase Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright after two innings.
Wainwright suffered just the second loss of his career at Wrigley, and the two innings matched his shortest career outing.
Jake Arrieta was the beneficiary of the power display. Not that he needed it.
Arrieta (14-5) allowed four hits, struck out six and walked two in 5⅔ innings. The only run he allowed came on Stephen Piscotty’s solo homer in the fifth. Errors by third baseman Kris Bryant and second baseman Javy Baez kept Arrieta from working longer.
Arrieta admitted it was tough to pitch on a humid day knowing a rain delay was possible, but the offense gave him plenty of breathing room.
“I think the story today was our offense was really good,” Arrieta said.
Szczur and Jorge Soler homered in the sixth before the Cubs tacked on four more runs in the seventh. After Contreras singled, Baez homered to extend the lead to 11-1. Pinch hitter Chris Coghlan was hit by a pitch before Szczur connected for his second homer of the day.
Jedd Gyorko hit a solo home run off reliever Joe Smith in the eighth.
The Cubs’ winning streak is their longest since 2001, when they won 12 consecutive games.
Szczur, for one, is just glad to be along for the ride.
“It’s great to be here every day,” Szczur said. “No matter what the circumstance is.”
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