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Adbert Alzolay’s pickoff caps Chicago Cubs’ series win in Seattle behind another solid start from Javier Assad

SEATTLE — Chicago Cubs closer Adbert Alzolay was confident the replay review would vindicate him.

Alzolay’s perfectly-timed pickoff move with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday caught Seattle Mariners pinch runner Julio Rodríguez, aided by first baseman Michael Busch’s well-timed tag. The on-field call by first base umpire Doug Eddings determined Rodríguez was safe, though manager Craig Counsell challenged the ruling.

Although Alzolay felt he had nailed Rodríguez, he stayed mentally locked in during the replay review in case the call stood and he had to resume a 1-1 count with Luke Raley, the winning run. Alzolay, though, was right. Replay overturned the call to end the game in a 3-2 victory, setting off Alzolay’s celebratory fist pump and a celebration erupting from the Cubs’ dugout.

“I felt super confident as soon as I throw that one I saw Buschy going and touching him, looking at (Busch’s) face he goes, ‘Yes, I got it,'” Alzolay said. “So I was like, oh yeah, we’ve got it.”

No matter what is happening in the game, Alzolay wants to be mentally prepared for those big moments.

The game-defining scenario might look a little different each time, but Alzolay was ready when he saw Rodríguez taking his lead off first base. He anticipated that Rodríguez, as Seattle’s tying run, would try to move into scoring position. Alzolay threw over after his first pitch to Raley and felt he had a good move even though Rodríguez got back safely.

So, he went to the pickoff move again following his second pitch of the at-bat.

“It was there,” Alzolay said. “As soon as I see him kind of jumping, that was when I made the move to first base.”

The exciting finish capped a series win after the Cubs’ disappointing three-game set in San Diego. It required a total team effort, backed by Busch’s two-run homer — his fourth straight game with a home run — second baseman Nico Hoerner and shortstop Dansby Swanson producing three double plays at key moments in the seventh and eighth innings, and the bullpen combining to throw 3 1/3 scoreless innings while navigating a couple of precarious moments.

“That’s just a testament to our team and the response from the series in San Diego that didn’t go our way to come here and win games by all means necessary,” Swanson said. “So it was definitely a good couple of days for us.”

Javier Assad making case to stay in rotation

Right-hander Jameson Taillon’s next start in the upcoming week will come with the Cubs, forcing someone from the rotation to get bumped.

Counsell hasn’t publicly declared whose spot Taillon will take, but it’s expected to come down to right-handers Javier Assad and Ben Brown, both of whom have also pitched well out of the bullpen. Assad did his part Sunday, making a case to stick in the rotation by limiting Seattle to two runs in 5 2/3 innings. Those runs came against the last batter he faced, Jorge Polanco, on a two-run homer that left Assad frustrated his start ended similarly to his outing Monday in San Diego when he surrendered a two-run home run to end his night.

For Chicago Cubs pitcher Javier Assad, a trip to San Diego is a family affair for the Mexico native

Despite that hiccup, Assad, who owns a 2.16 ERA through three starts, scattered four hits at T-Mobile Park, walked one and struck out six batters to set up the Cubs’ win.

“I thought Javy pitched really, really well,” Counsell said. “Filled up the zone and just kind of the same pitches to end the game … but definitely put us in position to win and a quality start.”

Christopher Morel’s defense takes center stage

Since the Cubs and Counsell committed in spring training to give Christopher Morel an opportunity to be their starter at third base, there have been some rough defensive moments.

But then he delivers defensive plays like in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Seattle Mariners, and it’s a reminder of Morel’s progress and why the organization wants to see if he can be a reliable defender at the position. Morel’s defensive highlight reel Saturday on back-to-back at-bats featured a diving stop in the sixth inning that prevented at least one run scoring off Shota Imanaga and a leaping snag with runners on scoring position to assist reliever Mark Leiter Jr. in stranding the runners in scoring position.

“The plays Morel made were unbelievable, saved the game for us,” Leiter said.

Imanaga walked two batters to begin the sixth — his first walks allowed this season — as the Cubs tried to hold on to their one-run lead. Morel dove toward the third-base line to snag the baseball and delivered a one-hop throw to first for the first out of the inning. The play prevented the ball from likely reaching the left-field corner and preserved the Cubs’ lead.

Imanaga was so impressed and appreciative of Morel’s defensive effort he wanted to congratulate him by putting Morel on his shoulders and tossing him in the air, like the “kata guruma” judo technique, a smiling Imanaga explained.

“The backhand as well as the diving play, those two just overall really helped me out,” Imanaga said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. “And I want to thank him as well as for the fact that with his defense we were able to win.”

Two great plays won’t stop the focus on Morel’s performance at third base. The Cubs lineup is at its most versatile when Counsell can pencil in Morel at third regularly and rotate who he uses as the designated hitter. They need him to be a competent defender if he is going to remain the regular starter. His three errors tie him for the most among major-league third basemen, but defensive performances like Saturday’s also show his upside and why it’s worth seeing what they have there.

“I definitely feel more confident,” Morel said through an interpreter Sunday. “I want to thank Counsell for instilling that trust in me and giving me the opportunity to go out there and play third base. Just to be able to get those reps in and get the trust up.”