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10 moments that defined the 2023 Chicago Cubs

Ryan Herrera Avatar
December 31, 2023

Cubs fans probably don’t want to think back on 2023 just yet.

They don’t want to think about the September that saw their playoff hopes shatter, and they don’t want to think about the fact that the Cubs still haven’t made an addition to the major league roster this offseason.

But with only a few hours left before the calendar turns to 2024, it’s time to look back at the year that was. It’s time to look back on the highs, the lows, the good times and the bad times that have led us to where we are now.

Which are the moments you’ll remember? A walk-off home run? Seven innings of perfection? A crucial error in late September?

All that and more made the last year memorable, but here are the 10 moments that defined 2023 for the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs extend Hoerner, Happ (March 29 + April 12)

Cubs fans had been critical of the team’s inability or unwillingness to extend members of the previous core, with fan favorites like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez ultimately ending up on different ballclubs. But this time around, the Cubs managed to come to terms with Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ.

Hoerner’s extension, worth $35 million from 2024-26, came together just before Opening Day. The Cubs bought out his last two seasons of arbitration plus what would’ve been his first year of free agency. And though that takes a season of control away from him, he emphasized that it didn’t matter because he believed in the direction of the team, and it’s the place he wants to be.

Happ opted to bypass free agency and sign his own three-year extension (also from 2024-26) worth $61 million. Like Hoerner, Happ emphasized that Chicago was “the place I’ve always wanted to be.” And considering Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer doesn’t necessarily like the idea of negotiating in-season, the fact that they got it done two weeks in meant they believed in Happ as a foundational piece of the team.

With those new deals not kicking in until 2024, it still remains to be seen if the Cubs’ investments will pay off. But getting these done signaled their belief that Hoerner and Happ will be key pieces of contending teams in the near future.

Velázquez slam leads epic comeback vs. Seattle (April 11)

This early in the season, nobody really knew if the Cubs would end up contending for the playoffs like team leaders had talked about for months. They’d just come off two incredibly disappointing seasons to begin their rebuild, and even though they added names like Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger, it just wasn’t yet clear if they could match up with other contenders around the league.

Enter, the Seattle Mariners. A team fresh off an appearance in the ALDS, who would go on to win 88 games and finish one game short of a wild card spot in 2023. Arguably their biggest test that early in the season, the Cubs would open some eyes if they could just earn a series win.

After winning Game 1 of the series, the Cubs quickly fell behind, 7-0, two innings into Game 2. This was the first major test of their resilience. Would they put up a fight, or would they pack it in with a large deficit staring them in the face?

You all know what happened next. The Cubs scored one in the bottom of the second, then exploded for eight runs in the bottom of the third, punctuated by a Nelson Velázquez go-ahead grand slam, to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Though a lot of season remained, this epic, come-from-behind win was one of the first signs that it would be a fun one.

Bellinger injured in Houston (May 15)

Bellinger immediately proved the Cubs’ willingness to take a flyer on him to be correct. He had one of the best months of his career in April, and though he’d come back down to earth the first couple weeks of May, he was still a major part of the lineup while playing exceptional defense in center field.

When he went up to rob an extra-base hit at the wall in Houston in mid-May, it looked like just another feather in the resurgent Bellinger’s cap. But Cubs fans’ hearts quickly sank when Bellinger left the field, as an awkward landing caused a left knee contusion.

The injury kept Bellinger out for a month — but there is a silver lining that also helped define the Cubs’ season. Bellinger going on the shelf allowed Mike Tauchman to join the active roster. Tauchman’s unexpected performance over the next month in turn allowed Bellinger to come back at first base in mid-June.

The Cubs realized their best lineup included both Tauchman and Bellinger, and the duo spent the next few months playing key roles in the team’s rise from 10 games under .500 to legitimate playoff contenders. Had Bellinger not gone down when he did, who knows if Tauchman ever gets the runway to produce like the Cubs needed him to.

Hendricks returns after long absence (May 25)

After spending almost 11 months on the IL due to a capsular tear in his right shoulder, Kyle Hendricks finally returned at the end of May.

He allowed five runs (three earned) over 4 1/3 innings against the Mets, but what mattered to Hendricks was that he got through it and still felt healthy and more like his old self. The outing wasn’t anything special, but it led to a season that reminded fans of “The Professor”: 12 quality starts, a 3.74 ERA, 2.8 fWAR, no extra stints on the IL and performances like no-hitting the Giants on the road for 7 2/3 innings.

Hendricks likely won’t consistently reach the heights he did earlier in his career. But this season, when nobody knew what to expect out of him after such a long time on the shelf, was a reminder that Hendricks can still be a stabilizing force for Cubs rotations with real playoff aspirations.

Cubs rally on the South Side (July 26)

This was a game the Cubs couldn’t afford to lose. It’s not just that it was against the crosstown rival White Sox; it was one of the last six games before the trade deadline, and every win would push the front office that much closer to not selling off.

After falling behind, 7-2, through four innings, though, it looked like the South Siders would provide potentially one of the final blows to that push. Marcus Stroman lasted just 3 1/3 innings, and mid-way through the game, it seemed the Cubs would head back to Wrigleyville with their hopes of keeping the group together dashed.

But then, the White Sox imploded.

The Cubs did their part, of course, putting balls in play, stealing bases, working counts and making White Sox pitchers throw to them. That all worked in their favor in the top of the fifth, as the Cubs used three singles, three walks, two hit-by-pitches, two steals and a dropped third strike to push six runners across the plate and take the lead. Happ and Bellinger added solo homers in the eighth to put the game away, and the Cubs walked away with a major comeback win in their push to avoid another sell-off.

Tauchman’s home run robbery in St. Louis (July 28)

Had the Cubs lost this game, it could’ve been the nail in the coffin. There were just three more games left before the deadline (and they went on to lose two of them). They needed an exclamation point, a moment to show that this team was for real.

That moment came when the ball left Alec Burleson’s bat in the bottom of the ninth at Busch Stadium, four days before the deadline. With a runner at third, it would’ve gone down as a walk-off, two-run home run and quite possibly the moment the Cardinals ended their arch rivals’ season. But Tauchman wasn’t about to let that happen.

With enough time to ready himself at the wall, Tauchman leaped and caught the ball before it could hit the grass beyond the wall, turning a game-winning homer into a game-ending fly out.

Was this the moment Hoyer decided the Cubs would buy at the deadline? He didn’t quite say that, but this was certainly one of those plays that showed him the Cubs deserved to ride out the season.

Stroman hits the IL (Aug. 2)

For the first three months of the season, Stroman was the Cubs’ Cy Young candidate. Through June 20, his 2.28 ERA led the NL and his 2.67 Win Probability Added led MLB. While Justin Steele was breaking through and beginning to enter that conversation, Stroman was the guy for the Cubs.

That’s why it was so surprising to see how he fared over the ensuing month-plus. Over his next seven starts, he posted a 9.00 ERA and went just 1-4 (though the Cubs managed to continue their playoff push despite his struggles). He just didn’t look like the same pitcher that had been so crucial to the Cubs for the first half of the year, and the situation culminated in him hitting the 15-day IL with right hip inflammation.

It got worse after that. Stroman was expected to return in mid-August after a minimum stint on the IL, but the team then revealed he’d suffered a right rib cartilage fracture that kept him out for another month. He did return to pitch four games (two starts) at the end of the season, but the Cubs’ playoff push fell short.

Without the initial injury, there’s a chance Stroman figures things out and pairs with Steele at the top of the rotation. Instead, everyone involved is left to think about what could’ve been.

Morel’s crosstown walk-off (Aug. 16)

The Cubs had gotten through the stress of the trade deadline, but every game still really mattered. They were out of the playoff picture at this point, and losing a series at home to the White Sox (who’d go on to lose 101 games) would’ve been ugly.

Through eight innings that night, though, it seemed that’s where things were headed. The White Sox led 3-1, and the Cubs’ only offense came on Nick Madrigal’s solo homer in the bottom of the eighth. But an inning later, Christopher Morel gave the home crowd one of the most electric moments it had seen in years.

Bellinger doubled and Swanson walked to lead off the inning, bringing Morel to the plate representing to the game-winning run. And after working a 1-2 count, Morel blasted a 99.5 mph sinker over the wall for the walk-off Cubs win.

The Cubs had a number of great moments throughout the 2023 season, but it’s hard to say any of them were as electrifying as this.

Suzuki’s drop becomes most infamous moment of Cubs collapse (Sept. 26)

No, Seiya Suzuki dropping a routine fly ball isn’t the reason the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs.

Losing six of seven games in September to the Diamondbacks, dropping a series on the road to the Rockies and one at home to the Pirates, some offensive slumps and bullpen struggles played an overall bigger role than any single play could. And considering how well Suzuki performed over the last two months of the season, there’s an argument to be made that the Cubs aren’t even in the hunt that late in the season without him.

But as they clung to their playoff hopes, a win over the Braves in the last week of the season would’ve been enormous. And they were in position to do that when Drew Smyly got what looked to be an inning-ending fly out to right field in the bottom of the eighth.

Then, disaster struck. The ball flew past Suzuki’s glove as he momentarily lost it in the Truist Park lights and hit the outfield grass. Bellinger got the ball back in quickly, but two Braves runners scored to deal the Cubs the gut-punch they could hardly afford.

Again, this wasn’t the reason the Cubs missed the playoffs. There was a whole lot more that went into their collapse than one dropped fly ball. But as they did fall short of the postseason, Suzuki’s error will likely be the play fans remember when they think back to a September to forget.

Counsell hired as new manager (Nov. 6)

What’s left to say about this move?

You can call it cold-blooded, necessary, shocking or a host of other adjectives, but all that needs to be said is that this is probably the biggest move to win that Hoyer made in all of 2023.

After David Ross got votes of confidence from up and down the organization at the end of the season, Hoyer went out and shocked the baseball world by signing former Brewers manager Craig Counsell to be the Cubs’ new skipper. Why? Because he felt having one of the best managers in baseball gave this ballclub its best chance to win, now and in the future.

How the next five seasons go remains to be seen, and they absolutely have work to do to improve this team in the first few months of 2024, but there’s no doubting how massive of a swing this was for the Cubs.

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