With the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh, John Baker took a swing at a pitch that curved just a little too far. The ball zipped down the line and into the right-field corner, and by the time a fielder could reach it, Baker was speeding toward second base on a diamond that now belonged to him.
When he got there, he raised two peace signs above his head and relished in the encore from the home crowd. The double capped off his first 3-hit game of the season and combined with Jason Hammel's 5-hit performance to power the Cubs to a 7-2 win over the Nationals on Friday at Wrigley Field.
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"I had to contain a smile," Baker said. "I kind of feel the same way right now as I would have had I gone 0-for-4, but we still won 7-2. Being an older player and being a backup catcher, the main focus for me is for us to win the game. That's the only thing I can really care about."
The winning might not have to follow his own hitting for Baker to be happy, but on Friday, it was certainly how the game played out. He reached base in all four plate appearances and drove in 4 runs, which tied a career high and equaled the season total he brought into the game. In one day, Baker's batting average rose from .160 to .186.
From behind the plate, Baker caught 100 pitches from Hammel, linking him to one more piece of Friday's winning formula. Facing the ever-present threat of being traded, Hammel simply worked for 6⅓ innings. He allowed the 2 runs on 5 hits, the last one coming on his final pitch. It was the only hit he allowed from the final 11 batters he faced.
"It was a grind for me," said Hammel, who moved to 7-0 in 9 career starts against the Nationals. "It wasn't that easy, not that it ever is. I was struggling to find my slider command. I was able to command the fastball well enough to keep them honest."
The challenges sprouted up early. In the second inning, Hammel allowed an Adam LaRoche single and a Ryan Zimmerman double to give the Nationals the game's first lead. After a walk to Wilson Ramos, Hammel's quandary became clear: He was struggling to get his off-speed pitches into the strike zone, and when he did, they were too far in for the batter to miss.
Ian Desmond stepped up and hit a quick grounder to third base, where Luis Valbuena fired the ball to Baker to nail Zimmerman at the plate. Hammel then struck out Danny Espinosa and forced Nationals starter Tanner Roark to hit a grounder for the final out.
The Cubs took a 2-1 lead the next inning when Luis Valbuena (double) and Chris Coghlan (single) scored on RBI singles by Baker and Darwin Barney.
But LaRoche found Hammel again in the fourth inning for a home run that barely made it over the ivy in right-center. That's when the right-hander settled down, retiring batter after batter to let his hitters win the game.
Coghlan and Baker led off the bottom of the fourth with singles. Both scored on a single by Ryan Sweeney.
The 4-2 lead held until the seventh. That's when Justin Ruggiano, Starlin Castro and Valbuena loaded the bases for Baker to find the curveball he needed to clear them.
"He was the hero today, for sure," Hammel said of his catcher.
After the game, the star of the show was the first to credit his cast. Save for Castro, every Cub in the lineup had a hit. The Cubs combined for 13 total hits, which ties for the most they've had in their past 29 games.
For a young team that is now 21-17 in its last 38 games, Friday was the kind of day manager Rick Renteria has been looking for.
"I think they'll kind of continue to chip away at who they are individually and as a club," Renteria said. "They're having fun. They're getting to know each other. They're doing whatever it takes right now to just play the game. They're relaxing.
"Obviously, winning some ball games and getting some hits in some key situations doesn't hurt. Confidence is building."