In what was a pitching duel between veteran Jon Lester and rookie Aaron Blair, the Chicago Cubs used a grand slam in a five-run eighth inning to cruise past the Atlanta Braves on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Heading to the bottom of the eighth tied at 1-1, Jim Johnson came in for relief. Tommy La Stella led the inning off with a double to left field that just carried over Jeff Francoeur's head. Dexter Fowler tried to advance La Stella to third by bunting him over, but Johnson made a great play by throwing a bullet to Adonis Garcia to tag out La Stella for the first out. That would seemingly end the rally, but Johnson walked Jason Heyward to open the door back up. Ben Zobrist followed with a single up the middle, and the Cubs had the bases loaded with only one out.
Johnson was replaced by Eric O'Flaherty to face the left-handed Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo delivered another single up the middle to give the Cubs a 2-1 lead with the bases still loaded. O'Flaherty was replaced by Chris Withrow, and on his second pitch, Matt Szczur launched a grand slam into the left field seats to blow the game open. Thanks to the eighth inning explosion, the Cubs went on to win the game, 6-1.
Each starter was very effective in their outings. Blair threw six innings, allowing one run on two hits and three walks while striking out three. Blair did a nice job at keeping the ball down in the strike zone against the powerful Cubs' lineup.
Lester lasted seven innings, giving up one run on seven hits and two walks while striking out 10. Lester once again found his way out of the jams he faced in the game, only raising his ridiculous 90.4 percent LOB rate coming into the start.
After walking two of the first three batters he faced, Blair, who was making the second start of his career, settled in very nicely against the dangerous Cubs lineup. He had retired 11 straight after escaping the jam in the first inning when Javier Baez doubled to left field to give Chicago its' first hit of the game.
The Braves struck first in the game -- thanks to the heating up bat of Freddie Freeman. Atlanta had strung together a few hits in the first three innings but failed to make anything of it. Leading off the fourth inning, Freeman turned on a 91 MPH fastball and sent it sailing straight over Heyward's head into the right field seats.
That lead wouldn't hold for long. After Baez's double in the fifth, David Ross came to plate two batters later and lined a single to right field. Francoeur would've had a chance at throwing out Baez at home, but his glove skimmed the top of the rolling baseball, failing to scoop it up to deliver a throw. Blair then forced a double play from Lester to head to the sixth inning knotted up at 1 run-apiece.
Both clubs squandered golden opportunities to score in the seventh inning. Francoeur led off for the Braves with a line drive single to center field. After a Tyler Flowers walk, Erick Aybar bunted to advance the runners. The bunt would've usually been an easy out at first, but the known bunt-handling struggler -- Lester -- couldn't get the ball out of his glove, and Atlanta suddenly had the bases loaded with nobody out. What followed wasn't great. Drew Stubbs struck out after an eight-pitch at bat. Jace Peterson came on to pinch hit and struck out looking. Nick Markakis grounded out to first. The chance to take the lead was blown, and then the Cubs had their turn.
Rizzo walked to lead off the inning, and Jorge Soler singled to put two on base. Baez did his job by advancing the runners on a soft groundout to second base, and Alexi Ogando intentionally walked Addison Russell to load the bases with one out. David Ross was next, and his hard grounder up the middle was played in perfect position by Aybar to force the 4-6-3 double play to escape the jam.
The Braves will certainly sleep well on Friday night after their rough road trip from Boston to Chicago on a short turnaround. They'll face the Cubs in game two of the series on Saturday at 2:20 p.m. Julio Teheran is expected to take the mound against John Lackey.