A summer night at Wrigley Field. One of baseball’s best rivalries. A pair of aces on the mound. A pennant race.
And, OK, no fans.
Otherwise, it had a playoff feel, even during a pandemic.
“It feels like September,” Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said before his team’s opener of a five-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals Friday. “That’s something I say with excitement. Fortunately in my career, I’ve been able to play a lot of winning baseball, and September has been a big month. There are a lot of things that you learn about your teammates, learn about your club, and you get to see where things are going to stand and check out heading into October.”
The Cubs entered Friday’s opener with a 3½-game lead over the second-place Cardinals in the National League Central and sent Cy Young Award candidate Yu Darvish to the mound against fellow right Jack Flaherty (1.93 ERA in 18⅔ innings).
Darvish, sporting an NL-best 1.47 ERA and having a near-flawless season, was perfect through 5 innings, while his teammates jumped on Flaherty for a pair of first-inning runs en route to a 4-1 win. The Cubs made Flaherty throw 43 pitches in the first, which Willson Contreras highlighted with a 2-run single on a 3-2 pitch and two out.
“Whenever you have a good at-bat like that in your first at-bat, that makes you feel great,” Contreras said.
Contreras added an RBI single, again with two outs, in the third to end Flaherty’s night early. The Cubs catcher, who started at designated hitter with Victor Caratini continuing a season trend of catching Darvish, was hitting just .217 coming in. Contreras crushed a solo homer in the sixth and finished 3-for-4, knocking in all of the Cubs’ runs.
Matt Carpenter ended Darvish’s perfection when he led off the sixth with a homer into the basket in right-center field. But Darvish retired the next six batters he faced.
“I knew I was [throwing] a perfect game in like the fourth inning,” Darvish said. “At the same time, I knew somebody could break up the no-hitter. When Carpenter hit the home run, I got more focused on the next guy.”
Darvish pitched 7 innings, allowing only the Carpenter home run, striking out 11 (no walks) and actually lowered his ERA to 1.44. Roan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress (fifth save) finished the combined 2-hitter.
“I’m not perfect every time [with my delivery],” Darvish said of his consistency in 2020. “I have an issue every start. But before, like in 2018 and 2019, even before, every start I’d have three or four issues or five issues. But now, if I have an issue, it’s only one or two.”
“He’s been trying to attack the zone,” Contreras of the difference between Darvish of the last two years and this year. “He’s getting ahead in the count more, and that’s the biggest key for him.”
Newly acquired Cameron Maybin made his first start as a Cub, played center field, and singled twice.