The under-the-radar moment that helped spark the Cubs offense
The Cubs offense broke out in a huge way Saturday for a much-needed 13-run, 14-hit outing.
Once again, Willson Contreras was the catalyst, staying on a slider from Braves starter Huascar Ynoa and shooting it into the right field bleachers for a solo homer in the 1st inning.
That early lead helped the Cubs lineup settle in and they tacked on run after run and longball after longball in the type of game this team — and this fanbase — had been waiting for months to see.
But what if Contreras’ blast hadn’t come in a scoreless game? What if the Cubs were actually trailing in the contest before they even came up to bat in the bottom of the 1st inning? Would the offense have felt as free and relaxed?
Trevor Williams’ pickoff of Ronald Acuña Jr. six pitches into the game proved to be a low-key turning point in the contest.
That seems funny to say in a 13-4 Cubs victory, but it’s true.
Williams walked Acuña — the hottest hitter in baseball right now — on four straight pitches to open the game. Then he threw over to first base in an effort to catch Acuña napping. The Braves superstar was initially called safe on the field but a few seconds later, the umpire crew was coming together for a replay review.
How often do you see a manager challenge six pitches into a game? But it proved pivotal, as the video showed Anthony Rizzo applied the tag on Acuña just a split second before he slid back into the base.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman immediately followed with a single into left-center that likely could have sent Acuña into third base with nobody out. Who knows if Williams would’ve pitched to Freeman differently had the pickoff play gone another way but no matter what, that was a big out — and a forgotten out as the game quickly became a blowout.
“Looking back on it, it really had the potential of changing the game here or there,” Williams said. “I think it immediately changed the dynamic and I was really thankful for that.”
After the Freeman single, Williams buckled down and struck out the next two hitters.
The Cubs offense had been pressing throughout the first two weeks of the 2021 campaign and came into the day averaging 2.6 runs per game.
A scoreless top of the 1st inning had a huge trickle-down effect on the rest of the team in a game they really needed.
It was also a really bold move for Brad Mills, who took over as the Cubs’ replay coordinator when Nate Halm was promoted to pro personnel specialist over the winter. If the Cubs lost the manager challenge on the pickoff play, David Ross would not have had the ability to request a replay review for the remainder of the game.
“Millsy really having the guts to say, ‘challenge it,’ early on in the game — that’s a tough one that hamstrings me throughout the game if he’s wrong,” Ross said. “It was definitely close but seemed pretty clear from the video replay on the board and passed that along. That game seemed like it could’ve been out of control early the complete other way.
“When you talk about the success of an organization and a team, it’s players, it’s front office, it’s coaches, it’s replay guys, it’s analytical groups. All that stuff comes into play and guys are ready and do their homework and are on top of their game. It benefits us all.
“Yeah, I felt like that game could’ve went the other way really fast and that pickoff turned it around.”
A baseball season is full of little moments like the pickoff challenge that have major ripple effects on a team’s success. This weekend at Wrigley Field, one of those under-the-radar plays changed the tune for the 2021 Cubs.