Clutch at-bat and relief outing lead Cubs to series victory over baseball’s best
In a see-saw game, it’s often one clutch moment — at the plate or on the mound — that can make a difference.
Sunday afternoon the Cubs had one of each.
A timely knock from Cody Bellinger and a pivotal moment on the mound from Michael Fulmer helped deliver the Cubs a 6-4 win over the Braves. The Cubs took 2 of 3 in the 3-game set against Atlanta. They sit just 1.5 games out of the NL Central race and are tied for the final spot in the NL Wild Card.
The Cubs finished their homestand 5-2 against the Reds and Braves, have won 13 of their last 16 and have won 6 straight series.
“I’m just glad I can come through for the team,” Fulmer said. “I feel like in a game like this and the way this team’s been playing, it’s been unbelievable.
“I feel like this is as close to a playoff atmosphere as I can imagine. Haven’t been there, but the crowd getting on their feet all the way from the 1st inning to the 9th inning in big spots — it really gives us a boost of adrenaline and kinda gives us the will to wanna do it even more, get the job done.”
In the 5th inning, trailing 3-2, the Cubs tied the game with an RBI-single from Ian Happ with one out. That’s when Bellinger delivered the knock of the game.
The Cubs’ center fielder worked a 3-0 count against Atlanta starter Charlie Morton, then took two pitches to load the count and fouled off the 6th pitch to bring the crowd of 34,015 to their feet. On the 7th pitch of the at-bat, Bellinger looped an 82-mph curveball below the zone into right field for a double that gave the Cubs a lead they would not relinquish. Bellinger would score two batters later on a single from Jeimer Candelario.
“It does feel like he’s getting 2 or 3 hits a night, a big walk here and there,” manager David Ross said. “He’s been a game changer for us in the middle of our lineup.”
But Atlanta’s offense is no slouch and made things interesting in the 6th.
The Cubs knew they had to push starter Justin Steele since their bullpen was a bit thin, so the lefty came back out for the frame on 89 pitches. Stele showed some signs of fatigue walking the first two batters. He induced a lineout from Kevin Pillar and then allowed a single to Michael Harris II to load the bases.
Ross turned to Fulmer, who had pitched 1.1 innings on Saturday to work out of the jam against Ronald Acuña Jr. Fulmer had an 0-2 count on the MVP candidate when he hit him, cutting the Cubs’ lead to 1.
“I don’t wanna say I’m glad I hit him, cause I’m not, obviously — I’d rather a groundball to Dansby [Swanson] and they turn two,” Fulmer said. “But sometimes, you gotta be a little bit more careful. Obviously not trying to hit him there, but sometimes 1 run’s better than 3 or 4.”
Fulmer buckled down.
Against Ozzie Albies, Fulmer knew he didn’t want to work a deep count with him, just because of his vision at the plate. So, he attacked, looking to induce an inning-ending groundball. Instead, he struck him out looking.
“Just trying to pump in strikes and not try to nibble too much,” Fulmer said. “He put up a great at-bat, but got the backdoor slider and lucky enough to punch him out.”
The Braves’ potent lineup meant another star hitter was due up — Austin Riley, who has 26 home runs and an .832 OPS. Riley worked a full count against Fulmer, bringing the crowd to its feet. Fulmer’s battery mate, rookie Miguel Amaya, called for a sinker against Riley. Fulmer had thrown 4 sweepers and a four-seamer in the at-bat, so he trusted his battery mate — and struck out Riley looking.
“I think the full-count sinker there was the right choice that Miggy put down,” Fulmer said. “Miggy’s been unbelievable this whole game and this whole season so far of trying to learn new pitching staff and a lot of veteran guys, some new guys and guys that don’t have it that day, guys that do have it.
“He’s been awesome behind the plate and we’re thankful to have him.”
Every time the Braves scored, the Cubs seemingly had an answer. In the top of the 3rd, Atlanta jumped out to a 2-0 lead. The Cubs responded with a pair of runs of their own in the bottom half of the frame, tying the game while recording just 1 hit.
The Cubs added an insurance run in the 7th inning, an RBI-double from Swanson to plate Bellinger.
“Man, just relentless at-bats, right?” Ross said. “Just really grinders. The walks seem to just fuel us a little bit and getting guys on and creating traffic, stealing a base here or there, putting the pressure on the defense and some timely hitting, balls falling in.”
Steele wasn’t his vintage self, but he was still very good for the Cubs. The lefty allowed 4 runs (3 earned) in 5.1 innings on 8 hits with 7 strikeouts.
“I felt good today, arm feels good,” Steele said. “Just wanna keep going out there and competing, giving the team a good chance to win.”
José Cuas pitched a scoreless 7th and Mark Leiter Jr. had a 6-pitch 8th inning before Adbert Alzolay picked up his 14th save of the season for the Cubs.
“I thought Steele threw the ball well, but yeah, the bullpen was the story for me today,” Ross said.