St. Louis Cardinals

Soler makes most of his spot start against lefty Garcia; rare squeeze bunts sparked Cubs’ rally

Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder Kyle Schwarber takes his days off against left-handed pitchers, against which he has hit just .143 in 68 plate appearances.

Given his performance through the first two games of this post season — 4-for-6 overall, including a home run and 3 RBI in the wild-card win over Pittsburgh Wednesday night -- manager Joe Maddon was asked if he was at all tempted to keep Schwarber in the lineup against Cardinals' lefty Jamie Garcia in Game 2.

"No," he answered plainly.

It was the right call. Maddon instead started Jorge Soler, who responded with three hits, including the two-run home run in the second that put Chicago up 5-1 and broke Garcia’s back.

The Cubs went on to win 6-3 to even the series as the teams head to Chicago.

"After my first at-bat, I saw the ball really well — I was able to hit a double," Soler said, as translated by bench coach Dave Martinez. "Then my second at-bat I was up there I was looking for a fastball, looking for a fastball, and I thought after all the pitches, I would just get a ball up, and he got a ball up where I could hit it hard."

Soler strained an oblique in an August game against Atlanta and was out of action for more than three weeks. He had also missed time earlier in the season with an ankle injury.

Soler is more effective against left-handed pitching than Schwarber, but that comparison is relative. In 92 plate appearances this season, he’s hit .240 and just two of his 10 home runs against southpaws.

Maddon says his young outfielder has had a keener eye at the plate since his return Sept. 17.

"I just think you're seeing a more engaged player right now. That's the best way I can describe it," he said.

Catcher Miguel Montero must have spotted that too. He told Soler earlier in the day that he was due for a break-out performance.

"I was talking to Miguel before the game in the dugout, and Miguel came up to me and said 'you could have a really good game.' He was right, I had a good game,” Soler said.

With Cardinals' right-hander Michael Wacha on the mound for Game 3 in Chicago, Soler likely will be back on the bench, with Schwarber back in the No. 2 spot of the order.

Small Ball

Not a big proponent of sacrificing, Maddon doesn't recall the last time he put on a safety squeeze in a game, let alone two back-to-back.

But successful sacrifice bunts by pitcher Kyle Hendricks and shortstop Addison Russell are what ignited Chicago's five-run second Saturday.

The Cubs ranked 20th out of 30 major league teams in sacrifice hits.

"I mean, that happens every so often, I guess a harvest moon possibly, I don't know," Maddon said. "It's one of those things that you look for, you work towards, but it doesn't always present itself. Factors have to be present."

Hendricks' initial bunt "wasn't optimal," Maddon said, but it worked.

Garcia fielded it and looked to have had time to get Austin Jackson out trying to score. He hesitated, however, and ended up throwing wildly past first, allowing Montero to third to set up the second squeeze attempt by Russell. That one was textbook.

Maddon suggested the factors which played into the second attempt included Garcia's throwing error on the first.

"The athleticism of the pitcher, how good he is at fielding his position may play into it," he said.

Garcia gave up an RBI single to lead-off hitter Dexter Fowler and Soler's two-run home run before getting himself out of the inning.

Modern pitcher prep

Prior to Saturday's Game 2, a lot had been made of the fact that the Cubs hadn't seen Garcia pitch on anything but video tape. That made preparation tricky, Maddon said, but 21st century technology helped.

"The way things are done today is incredible," he said. "The way things can be broken down by video, scouting information, analytical components, you can still get a pretty good read."

Still ...

"There's still nothing better to me than the eyeball test, whether that's being able to actually hit against him or watch him from the side as a manager or coach, which I haven't been able to do," he added. "I'm relying more on information right now, and hopefully that information is solid."

Garcia threw 45 pitches through his two innings of work. He allowed five runs, all unearned, on four hits.

Bringing it home

Though they had clinched their playoff spot a week earlier, earning the National League's first wild card spot and the home field was a top priority for the Cubs right up until the last day of the season.

Maddon says he's looking forward to bringing playoff baseball back to Wrigley field, especially now that the series is even.

"I'm really pleased they're going to be able to go home and have our fans watch a playoff game at Wrigley Field," he said. "That was like one of my first thoughts after we beat Pittsburgh a couple of days ago, to get it back. I mean that was part of the drive as a wild card team to get past Pittsburgh was to bring that game home also."

Expanded strike zone

Maddon backed off Friday night’s subtle suggestion that an expanded strike zone in Game 1 took the Cubs out of their offense. He said by Saturday he and his club had turned the page.

"Every day presents different challenges, and you have to make adjustments constantly based on different factors," he said. "Whether it's the wind, the sun, the temperature, or even who is umpiring the game, it all is a part of what is going on. So I was proud of the way our guys handled yesterday. That's in the rear-view mirror."

Leading off

Table-setter Dexter Fowler ranked among National League leaders with 102 runs scored, despite hitting just .250 with a .348 on-base percentage.

He joined the Cubs in the spring on a one-year, $9.5 million contract after a year in Houston and six in Colorado. With at least two games left ahead of him on his current contract, free agency hasn't yet crossed his mind, he said.

"I believe God has a process and, you know, at the end of the day, if this is where I need to be, this is where I need to be," he said. "I'm taking it day by day, and right now just focused on winning." 

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman