It’s no secret this Cubs team isn’t necessarily built with much comeback potential, especially not when they’re facing large deficits.
The focus of the offseason was on shoring up the starting pitching depth, adding a couple of backend bullpen pieces and putting Gold Glove-caliber defenders around the field. Run prevention, not run production, is what’s supposed to earn the Cubs a lot of their wins.
So, when the Cubs went down 7-0 after the top of the second inning Tuesday against the Mariners, a come-from-behind victory seemed like a long shot. Young starter Hayden Wesneski couldn’t escape the second inning, with control issues becoming evident essentially from the jump. An error by the veteran first baseman and another from the Cubs’ $177 million shortstop that caused all five runs in the second to be unearned didn’t help. At that point, it just felt like it wasn’t going to be the Cubs’ night.
“You feel like you let the team down, and you feel like you set your team up for a loss already in the second inning,” Wesneski said.
But if you looked out on the field at any point pregame, you could tell the elements were right for an offensive explosion. As Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer spoke on the field during an unusually warm mid-April night (76 degrees at first pitch), the flags behind him were blowing straight out. And for whatever reason, at one point, Hoyer began talking about comebacks.
“I do think it’s important to have comeback wins,” he said. “I think comebacks are a measure of the kind of unity and toughness. You want a team that’s going to kind of keep fighting and clawing, even when you’re behind.”
Hoyer was referring to the walk-off win Monday night. But that wasn’t nearly as big a comeback as the one he’d see later on Tuesday.
By the time Nelson Velázquez worked a 3-1 count against Seattle’s Chris Flexen with one out, the bases loaded and the Cubs trailing by three in the bottom of the third, the crowd of 30,081 was ready to explode. They got on the board the inning before when Yan Gomes scored Cody Bellinger with an infield single. Then, after Dansby Swanson singled and Ian Happ popped out to begin the third, Trey Mancini came to the plate.
Mancini’s error at first base to start the second inning was a factor in the Mariners’ big inning. He also struck out looking to end the bottom of the first. So, when he launched one to straight center field in that third-inning at-bat, it felt like he put almost everything into it.
“There was a little anger behind the swing there,” Mancini said.
The homer cut the lead to 4, but there was still work to do. Each of the next four batters reached base, allowing Velázquez to come up in the situation where one swing could put the Cubs ahead. Again, the crowd was already more than buzzing at that point. With each pitch in Velázquez’s at-bat, he could feel the energy. He just had to remind himself to focus on the task at hand.
“I feel it [in the moment],” he said. “I tried to calm myself down and say, ‘OK, you have to focus, you have to keep with your approach. Try to not listen to anything.’ I know it feels good, but it’s something that I do. Just keep my approach and try to hit the ball hard to try to put the team in the lead.”
When Velázquez swung at Flexen’s next pitch (a high, 92.1 mph four-seamer), he didn’t miss. The crack of the bat, the launch angle, the immediate hysterics around the Wrigley Field — everything told you the Cubs had just completed a comeback for the ages on Velázquez’s first career grans slam. The place was so loud, in fact, that even those around Wrigleyville could hear the roar.
“I couldn’t help but just smile. It was so pure,” said Swanson, who removed himself for the game before the top of the sixth. “The energy was just amazing. As soon as Nelly hit that ball — I hadn’t really felt too many things like that in my career.”
The Cubs pushed across one more in the frame, and the bullpen took it from there. Michael Rucker, Adbert Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather combined to allow just two more runs over the last six innings, while the offense managed to scrape enough across for the 14-9 win. Per ESPN Stats & Info, this snapped an 0-for-79 streak in games the Cubs trailed by seven or more runs.
In his postgame presser, manager David Ross recalled a win from July 31, 2016, against this same opponent, in which the Cubs overcame a 6-0 deficit and won on a walk-off bunt from Jon Lester in the 12th. That one, however, saw them scrap together runs over multiple innings for the comeback. It didn’t feature the quick-strike offense we saw Tuesday night.
No, this type of offensive outbreak probably shouldn’t become the expectation. Regardless of the deficit, it was the kind of night at Wrigley that made a comeback like this seem possible. Good pitching and good defense should still drive the Cubs’ success this season.
But it’s good to know that when those two are what put them in a hole early on, there’s enough firepower in the offense to make some magic happen.
“That’s a nice character win,” Ross said. “That’s a fun one, that’s a big one. It’s a really nice win. I haven’t been a part of one of those in a really long time.”