Anthony Rizzo smacked a tiebreaking RBI single with one out in the eighth inning and Matt Szczur followed with his first career grand slam to lift the Cubs to a 6-1 victory over the Braves on Friday at Wrigley Field. With the win, the Cubs are now 17-5 and off to their best start since the 1907 team was 18-4 in its first 22 games.
With the game tied at 1 in the Chicago eighth, pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella doubled to left off Jim Johnson before getting forced out at third on Dexter Fowler’s fielder’s choice. Jason Heyward walked and Ben Zobrist singled to load the bases and chase Johnson. Rizzo greeted lefty Eric O’Flaherty with a single to center to score Fowler. Szczur then launched an 0-1 pitch from Chris Withrow into the left-field bleachers for his second home run of the season.
“I can’t explain the feelings I have,” Szczur said. “I was super excited. I want to contribute to the team and make an impact, and it’s great to do so in that manner.”
The Braves had taken a 1-0 lead in the fourth on Freddie Freeman’s leadoff home run, only the fifth by Atlanta this season, and the Cubs tied the game in the fifth on David Ross’ RBI single. Chicago starter Jon Lester struck out 10 over seven innings but did not get a decision. He has begun the season with five straight quality starts for the first time in his career but has received just one run of support in 20 1/3 innings at home.
“I liked the way we played, but the eighth inning unraveled on us,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after his team dropped to 5-18. “La Stella hits a double and then all of a sudden the wind changed. Earlier in the game, [La Stella’s double] wouldn’t have gone anywhere. That kind of changed everything and Szczur got the big hit.”
Starter Aaron Blair impressed as he limited the Cubs to one run and two hits over six innings. The young right-hander once again displayed a good mix of offspeed pitches while keeping Chicago’s hitters off balance. After walking two of the first three batters he faced, the Braves rookie retired each of the next 11 batters. The highly-regarded prospect has effectively commanded his offspeed pitches (changeup and curveball) while pitching into the sixth inning in each of his first two career starts.
Before surrendering their fourth grand slam of the season and third within the past eight days, the Braves were unable to take advantage of the bases-loaded threat against Lester in the seventh inning. The threat ended with Nick Markakis’ groundout, but it was quieted when Jace Peterson struck out in a pinch-hit appearance. While carrying 13 pitchers over the past few days, the Braves weakened their bench and consequently been been forced to send Peterson and Kelly Johnson to the plate for pinch-hit opportunities against left-handed pitchers.
“I was hoping we could score a run in the seventh there,” Gonzalez said. “We had nobody out and [Drew Stubbs] at the plate. I was thinking, ‘If he splits a gap here, I’m going to let [Blair] hit,’ because he was that good. But you’ve got a situation where it’s a 1-1 game in the seventh and runs are at a premium.”
Lester has been working on his throws to first, but had a problem in the seventh. The Braves had runners at first and second with nobody out when Erick Aybar bunted toward the pitcher. First baseman Rizzo was charging in, but Lester fielded the ball and didn’t throw. Aybar was safe and the bases were loaded. Maddon went to the mound to remind Lester that he could get out of the mess, and the lefty did by striking out the next two batters before getting Markakis to ground out to Rizzo at first.
“I never had a handle on it,” Lester said. “I fielded it, the ball rattled around in my glove and I reached for it twice and I didn’t have a handle on it and ate it. Believe me or not on that. There’s no point in rushing a throw when I don’t have a handle on the baseball.”
Said Ross: “I’d rather he not make an error. If he does have half a grip or is unsure of himself, then don’t throw it. There are so many ways to get out of it and he did.”
Javier Baez doubled to open the Chicago fifth, the first hit off Blair, and one out later, he scored on Ross’ single to left. Ross now has five RBIs in his past five games. The veteran didn’t record his sixth RBI last season until Aug. 4, and totaled nine in 72 games in 2015 when he batted .176.
Julio Teheran will take the mound when Atlanta and Chicago resume this three-game series on Saturday at 2:20 p.m. CT. Teheran produced his most impressive start of the young season on Monday, when he limited the Red Sox to one run over seven innings.