CHICAGO – There was plenty of joy in Cubville on Friday, and it may have been fueled by something manager Joe Maddon said before the Cubs went out and beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1.
Maddon moved another of his stars, third baseman Kris Bryant, into the leadoff spot for the first time in Bryant’s major league career.
Bryant singled on the first pitch he saw, one of three singles for the game. The bigger factors were the six strong innings turned in by starting pitcher Mike Montgomery and three spectacular catches by left fielder Ian Happ, the last of which ended the game and sent the Wrigley Field crowd home happy and joyful.
But Maddon stripped baseball down it its basics before the game and may have set the tone when he talked about Bryant.
“The big point I really want you to focus on: just getting on base,” Maddon said. “I don’t care – walk, base hit up the middle, blooper to right field. Take all that other stuff off your plate and go play. Go play with the joy of playing. I’ll take what happens.”
What happened was the Cubs won their 10th game in their past 12 outings and improved to a season-high 12 games over .500 at 36-24.
Maddon also talked before the game about the need for quality starts, something the Cubs have not been getting enough of lately.
After Friday, Montgomery has two of the Cubs’ past three quality starts. He gave up back-to-back singles in each of the first two innings but settled down to pitch six, giving up seven hits and a first-inning run.
In three starts this year, Montgomery is 2-0 with a 1.02 ERA as he subs for the injured Yu Darvish and makes his claim to stay in the rotation.
“I’m definitely ready for the challenge of whatever the role is,” he said. “It’s something I’ve prepared in my mind always to be a starter, but yeah, it’s fun going out there and getting a chance to start. Great crowd. Didn’t have my best stuff today, but our defense picked me up big time. Happ’s diving catches were huge for us.
“We scored a couple runs early. I gave up that run early. We scored, took the lead and that was kind of able to settle me down a little bit more. It was big time.”
The Cubs scored twice in the first and once in the second, and that was it.
Speaking of “big time,” Happ was just that in left field. He came in to make a diving catch of Corey Dickerson’s fly ball to end the third and leave two Pirates stranded. He made two more plays, none more important than on Josh Harrison’s ball toward the left field corner with two outs and a man on in the ninth. This time, the dive went away from the plate as Happ snagged the ball to preserve the victory and the save for Pedro Strop, who was closing in place of Brandon Morrow, as Maddon gave his main guy a break.
“I got a good bead on it, good jump early and I was able to track it down for Stropy,” Happ said. “Really great performance by him to come in [during the eighth inning] and get that four-out save.”
Happ, a second-year man, tends to flash a bit of pride when he’s told he can’t do something, such as play defense.
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s kind of been, or was, the story of my young career in college. Kind of fueled by it, a lot of times being told I couldn’t play a bunch of defensive spots and being labeled as a hitter only, and a minus defender.”
And as for the joy of leading off, Bryant said it was all good.
“Anytime we move around the field, like I talk about with playing the outfield, too, shake things up a little bit,” he said. “I was pretty nervous for the first at-bat. Thankfully it worked out. I did it [leading off] in college. It wasn’t completely new, but it’s a completely different level, much better pitching. Who knows? I might be in there tomorrow, too.”