“Go Cubs Go” reverberated through the home clubhouse postgame Friday at Wrigley Field as players belted along to the song.
The Chicago Cubs’ season-high 10-game losing streak had come up against the Atlanta Braves’ franchise-record-tying 14-game winning streak. So when small ball in the eighth inning produced the game’s lone run on Christopher Morel’s sacrifice fly and David Robertson worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to secure the 1-0 win, they had plenty to celebrate.
The Cubs — finally — were back in the win column.
Friday marked the first time since Sept. 15, 1999, that a team with a double-digit losing streak beat a team on a double-digit winning streak, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“Look, we’ve had some ugly ones lately, but I haven’t questioned the effort or the intensity of the guys at all,” manager David Ross said. “And nobody’s been making excuses. … There’s something about a starting pitcher going out and setting the tone.”
Right-hander Keegan Thompson delivered the type of start the Cubs desperately needed. Coming off bad starts in Baltimore and New York in which he was tagged for a combined 12 runs (10 earned) in 3⅔ innings left Thompson searching to get back on track. Ultimately he and the Cubs determined pitch selection, not mechanics, were at the root of his struggles.
Thompson needed to throw more fastballs. Well, the Braves certainly saw plenty en route to Thompson pitching into the seventh inning for the first time in his major-league career. Thompson’s four-seam fastball accounted for 52% of his 92 pitches, getting 10 whiffs and nine called strikes with the pitch. His 18 total swings and misses were the most by a Cubs pitcher this season.
“My core belief — and I’m probably not the norm in the new age — is you pitch with your fastball, especially the starter,” Ross said. “He did that today. That was what you do. Nobody took good swings.”
Thompson made a conscious effort to go to his fastball early and often against the Braves. He knew how important it would be to establish his fastball, a pitch that has been important during his successful outings this season. Thompson admitted he got away from throwing his fastball in his previous two starts when he was roughed up.
Rather than overthinking his mechanics, Thompson believes finding the right tempo and timing combined with more fastballs and attacking hitters are his keys to success.
“I think it was trying to place balls the last time instead of just going after guys and staying in the zone and letting them put it in play,” Thompson said. “There was a couple of fastballs that were hit in one of my outings and I think it just took me away from it. I was throwing more offspeed stuff or two seams instead.”
The only time the Braves advanced a baserunner past first against Thompson came on a soft fly ball in the fifth inning. It landed inside the white chalk as right fielder Jason Heyward was unable to reach it before the ball bounced out of play for a ground-rule double. Orlando Arcia’s fluky double had a .010 expected average. Thompson responded by striking out Michael Harris II for a career-high ninth strikeout to keep the game scoreless.
A seven-pitch sixth resulted in Ross sending Thompson back out for the seventh on a batter-by-batter approach. Thompson’s day ended after a four-pitch walk to Matt Olson, the Braves’ first hitter of the inning. But unlike other days during the Cubs’ losing streak, the bullpen threw zeros. Morel’s heroics capped the Cubs doing the little things right in the eighth. Pinch hitter Jonathan Villar walked and advanced on Andrelton Simmons’ sacrifice bunt. Villar stole third base during Morel’s at-bat and beat Harris’ throw home.
Morel had struck out three times against starter Charlie Morton before coming through with the go-ahead RBI against the Braves bullpen. Before Morel’s final plate appearance, Willson Contreras told him not to chase the low stuff like he did in his previous at-bats and look to attack something high.
“Just the small things, that’s what (Ross) said to us is going to be the key to winning games,” Morel said through an interpreter.
Thompson has an opportunity to build off his stellar performance as he tries to establish himself as a big-league starter. He set a career high in innings (six-plus) and strikeouts while holding a hot Braves offense to two hits and two walks.
“He’s back,” an impressed Contreras said afterward.
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Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy talked with Thompson ahead of Friday’s start and put his two ugly road outings in perspective: “You’ve had really good stretches, chalk it up to having a bad week.”
It was important for Thompson to how to compete even when things aren’t going well. Hottovy said those struggles didn’t change the Cubs’ minds at all about what Thompson can do as a starter.
“That’s part of learning in this league,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “You can learn a lot having success. You learn way more when you fail.”
The Cubs will continue to lean on their less-experienced starters, particularly Thompson and Justin Steele, with three veteran pitchers on the injured list. Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation) might return the soonest, though after playing catch Friday he couldn’t put a timeline on his return. Stroman hopes it will be a few weeks “give or take.”
Thompson’s ability to bounce back Friday rather than letting two bad starts snowball into extended struggles is a great development for the 27 year old.
“It does show a lot about Keegan because for a good while there he goes and has a couple hiccups that you tend to want to abort ship and try to correct everything,” said Yan Gomes, who caught him Friday. “He’s not the kind of guy that is. For him is just like almost having that bulk mentality of just come out, throw as hard as you can and throw all your pitches with major conviction.
“He’s got the potential to be a tremendous starter. He’s just got to find himself a little bit more, and you’re starting to see big spurts of that.”