The man who could save the Cubs’ season was sitting on the brick wall near the visitors’ dugout at Wrigley Field, eschewing the on-deck circle while awaiting his fourth inning at-bat.
“Just trying to rest,” Chris Archer said matter-of-factly.
When the time to bat arrived, the Rays starter scooted forward off the wall, strode to the batter’s box, fouled off a couple of poor bunt attempts, faked another bunt and slapped a pitch into right for his first major-league hit and RBI.
Archer and the Rays went on to beat the Cubs 6-5 in the opener of the Joe Maddon Invitational, a two-game set pitting the Cubs manager against the franchise he escaped from with, naturally, an escape clause.
Archer (7-5) allowed three runs over six innings, throwing 116 pitches. With a three-run lead in the sixth, he put the first two on before striking out the next three hitters to escape the jam.
The hit was just for bonus points, though it sparked the winning rally. Archer said manager Kevin Cash told him before the game: “Look, if (Anthony) Rizzo is in your face and you feel comfortable, fake bunt, slash, do it. The opportunity presented itself. I got fortunate they had that super-shift on, and the ball trickled through.”
Archer planned on framing Alex Cobb’s bat, which he used for the hit, though he never did get the ball.
“Unfortunately, my guys didn’t pick me up,” said Archer, who was one of five players the Cubs sent to the Rays before the 2011 season to acquire Matt Garza, Fernando Perez and Zac Rosscup.
There’s no doubt Archer (or “Archie,” as Maddon calls him) could give the Cubs a boost if they can acquire him before the July 31 trade deadline, similar to the one they received last year after trading for closer Aroldis Chapman.
But would the Rays give up Archer for a package that includes anything less than Eloy Jimenez, the Cubs’ top remaining prospect? And would that be a deal-breaker?
The Archer-to-the-Cubs rumor seems far-fetched, especially since the Rays are contenders in a league in which even last-place teams find themselves in the thick of the wild-card hunt.
“Rumors are just rumors,” Archer said. “My main focus is winning the World Series with the team that I’m on. I think we have a really good team and can do something special here. So when I read those I don’t pay too much attention.”
Either way, the Cubs are under .500 again, a recurring theme.
They came home to a Wrigley that probably could’ve used a stint in rehab after hosting a concert by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and two by Dead & Company. But the ballpark survived and the field looked fine, a far cry from the early days of Wrigley concerts when they had to spray-paint the grass.
Maddon vs. Cash was a subplot, as the former and current Rays managers faced off for the first time. Cash called it “an honor,” saying Maddon “put a face to Rays baseball.”
Nevertheless, Maddon’s image basically has been erased from Tropicana Field as though he didn’t exist.
“I don’t blame them, seriously,” Maddon said.
It’s odd the Rays don’t care to acknowledge what Maddon did for the franchise.
“I don’t think it’s awkward at all,” Maddon said. “There are new people in place, and then you have to put the new folks on the wall. That’s what you do. No, I’m not ready for that black-and-white photo, that iconic photo that’s placed in a hallway next to a trophy. I don’t think I’m that guy.
“Otherwise, I have no ill will whatsoever and personally I prefer for my pictures not to be displayed somewhere. Especially in post offices.”
So Round 1 went to Cash, whose Rays held off a late challenge and got another tough-as-nails performance from Archer, who threw strikes early and forced a patient Cubs lineup to alter its approach.
“I don’t know much better Arch’s stuff can get,” Cash said. “I mean, he was throwing 96-99 mph, with a 91 mph slider. That’s pretty good stuff. … My gosh, through four or five innings, I think he was throwing 74 percent strikes.”
And by preserving his energy sitting on the brick wall instead of wasting his time standing in the on-deck circle, Archer may have started a new trend.