HOUSTON – Anybody catch that Central Michigan finish at Oklahoma State?
Not to suggest the Cubs’ 2-1 loss to the Houston Astros in a noon game on the road Saturday doesn’t matter. But, then again, who cares?
Veteran starter John Lackey’s shoulder held up well over six strong innings in his second start since returning from the disabled list. Turns out Javy Baez is fine after that eighth-inning at-bat when he felt a twinge in his left hip – the pain going away almost immediately.
The pitchers all performed well. Nobody got hurt. Baez even threw a guy out at the plate in the seventh on a relay throw. And the Cubs’ division lead was still 15½ games over the Cardinals with 21 to play.
If anything was more distressing to the Cubs by mid-afternoon than a night of scoreboard watching for college football upsets, maybe it was Anthony Rizzo sweating over his Miami Dolphins’ season opener in Seattle on Sunday against the NFL’s equivalent of the Cubs.
“We understand that. We understand it won’t hurt to lose a game here and there,” said Miguel Montero, whose double in the fourth was the big hit leading to the Cubs’ lone run Sunday.
Of course, don’t mistake any of the looseness in the clubhouse or lack of angst for lack of effort or focus.
Maddon said unsolicited Friday that players were ticked at losing the last two of the Milwaukee series Wednesday and Thursday. And some of the fielding in recent days – including highlight plays from Baez at third base twice Friday night – and shutdown pitching the last three games dispel any suspicions of complacency.
If anything, “We’re probably anxious to clinch as soon as possible,” Montero said. “So that gives you the extra excitement to just try to do too much, to try to win games and get the lead even bigger and clinch, on this road trip.”
Of course, that would mean in St. Louis Tuesday or Wednesday.
“I think that’s our goal,” he said.
On the other side of the field this weekend, the Cubs are playing a young Astros team fighting for its playoff life in the American League wild-card race.
Houston’s starter Saturday, Collin McHugh (10-10), said he and manager A.J. Hinch talked before the game about how his start was essentially a playoff game for the Astros, coming off Friday’s shutout by Jon Lester and the Cubs’ bullpen.
“When you’re playing a team with 90 wins on Sept. 10, it’s never a good thing for you,” Hinch said, lauding his team’s effort and urgency. “As a manager it’s one of the most proud moments you can have. I mean, these guys are busting it. It’s an electric atmosphere. It means so much to them.”
Electricity? Even with the noon start, local Cubs fans and a sizeable road-tripping contingent helped create only the third Minute Maid Park sellout of the season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon these days walks the line between foot-on-the-accelerator and rest-guys-for-a-long-October. On Saturday, for example, 88-RBI shortstop Addison Russell and .381-OBP second baseman Ben Zobrist got the day off.
Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler and MVP candidate Kris Bryant got rest days earlier on this three-city trip.
It might explain some of the ups and downs of the lineup in recent weeks – the downs including Saturday’s 12 strikeouts and 0-for-10 performance with men in scoring position.
A Giants playoff-caliber rotation on the recent homestand and good young arms on the Astros staff the past two games might, too.
“It’s a baseball game, man,” Montero said. “Anything can happen. Tomorrow we come in and we’ll probably score 15 runs – who knows? That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Saturday was the Cubs’ 10th one-run game in their last 14 (5-5 in those tight ones).
“I love playing in those games, and I think our guys do also,” Maddon said. “You want to win them, but you can’t do it all the time.”