CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs love the hard stuff. Especially Dexter Fowler. And, no, even though they're in Wrigleyville amid a sea of bars, we're not talking about booze. We're talking about pitches. Fast ones.
Fast ones like those offered up one after the other by Miami ace Jose Fernandez during the Cubs' 3-2 win on Tuesday. Fernandez entered the game as one of 18 qualifying National League hurlers with an average pitch velocity of 90 mph or better. His average fastball velocity of 95 mph is one of the 10 best in the league. So what was Fowler's approach in his first at-bat?
"Just get that pitch to hit," he said. "He'll come right after you. He's a power guy, so that's what happened."
What happened is that Fowler rifled a 94 mph offering into the right-field corner that, with Marlins right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton playing well off the line, turned into a stand-up triple. That brought unflappable rookie catcher Willson Contreras to the plate. With Kris Bryant taking a day off, Contreras was batting second for the first time in his young career, and he was facing an annoyed Fernandez.
"I think Dexter surprised him a little bit," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "All of a sudden you saw 97, 98 on the gun."
Indeed, Fernandez's fastball suddenly ticked up, but Contreras rolled a fastball for an infield single, bringing Fowler in for the game's first run, always a point of emphasis for Maddon.
"It's always important to score first when you're playing guys like that," Maddon said. "We've talked about how you've got to take advantage of your scoring opportunities, and we did. We maximized our scoring opportunities [against] him."
It was no surprise that it was Fowler who fueled the offense, and that he did so against one of the nastiest pitchers in the league. Fowler's 1.153 OPS against pitch velocities of at least 90 mph ranks second in the majors, behind Boston's David Ortiz. But as impressive as that is, it's actually a team trait. The Cubs entered the game with a collective OPS of .843 against pitches 90 mph or faster. That ranks third in the majors. They rank just 15th on pitches under that velocity.
"When he plays at that level, it picks everybody else up," Maddon said of his leadoff man. "It really accelerates everybody's confidence hitting-wise. He's a nuisance to the other team, and he's got power, too. He's starting to hit again, and you're going to start seeing some ball go into the stands as he gets that feel back."
The Cubs went just 11-17 during the month-plus Fowler missed because of a hamstring injury. Then he returned July 22 in Milwaukee and mashed a home run to dead center field his first time up. Fowler now has a .435 on-base percentage since returning and has scored 11 runs in 11 games. The Cubs have won seven of those 11 games.
"It was fun, especially following Dexter Fowler," Contreras said of his first time in the 2-hole. "He takes a lot of pitches. He takes so many walks. That's good for us, because if he gets on base, we can score runs. We can see what he's doing with the pitchers."
Fowler shrugged off the praise, making his oh-so-difficult job sound as easy as punching a time card.
"That's been my job since I came up," Fowler said. "You're a leadoff guy, so you're supposed to lead it off. So that's just what I'm trying to do. I just try to get on base, get it started, and cause some havoc."
Fowler was at it again in the third inning against Fernandez, lining a one-out single, stealing second and reaching third on a Contreras single. He scored after tagging up on an odd fielder's choice off the bat of Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo flied to shallow left, and Miami left fielder Christian Yelich tried to throw behind Contreras, who had ventured off first. Fowler dashed home.
Fowler wasn't done. After Chris Coghlan singled in the fifth and moved up a bag on Fernandez's balk, Fowler nailed a solid single to center to put the Cubs up 3-0. And while Fowler didn't come around to score, Contreras did move him to second with a walk. That made the Cubs' 1-2 hitters 6-for-6 in getting on base off Fernandez.
The Cubs have now won 13 of 19. More important, just three days after the Cardinals temporarily narrowed Chicago's lead in the NL Central to six games, the Cubs have pushed their advantage back to nine games. It's their largest lead in the division since July 5.
And maybe all this success against ace-caliber stuff bodes well for their eventual fortunes in the postseason, when they could encounter guys like Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw. But before we get too worked up about that, Maddon isn't ready to declare that his young hitters have solved power pitching.
"We'll find out," Maddon said. "Last year it didn't [work out] so much when we faced the power of the Mets. I think we're getting a little bit better. There's still some things we have to get better at."