Patrick Wisdom, the slugging Cubs third baseman, put it pretty well when asked how important the mental side of the game is.
“It’s a game of failure, right? I mean, if you can’t handle it and can’t learn from it, then the game is going to be super hard,” Wisdom said during a recent sit-down interview with CHGO. “I think if you can really understand the mental side of it, then your physicality is going to come out naturally and you’re going to be able to play relaxed and have fun.”
It’s important to understand that, yes, baseball is a game of failure. When succeeding three out of 10 times gets you in the Hall of Fame conversation (at least it used to), that’s the best way to describe it.
For the Cubs, there’d been a lot more failures lately than through the first few weeks of the year. It’s hard not to just pick out some arbitrary date, but it seems like the beginning of the Cubs’ last road trip (April 28 in Miami) is when troubling trends really started — namely, when it came to timely hitting with runners in scoring position.
Before that day, through their first 24 games of the year, the Cubs were among the best in Major League Baseball in that situation. They owned a .310 batting average (third-best in MLB), a 125 wRC+ (fifth), an .825 OPS (fifth) and had drove in 94 runs (sixth). When they had runners in scoring position during that stretch, it seemed they were able to get the big hit.
But once they left for Miami, something changed. All of a sudden, those big hits with RISP were nowhere to be found. From April 28 through Tuesday (12 games), they were in many areas the worst team in baseball with RISP. Their average in that stretch was just .180 (second-lowest in MLB). Their wRC+ (53) and OPS (.547) were dead last. They drove in the third-least runs (24) despite having the fourth-most opportunities (137 plate appearances).
“It’s a lot of close games, a lot of things that if it kind of falls in our way, we’re not having this conversation,” Dansby Swanson said Tuesday night, following a two-run loss to the Cardinals in which the Cubs went 1-for-7 with RISP and left nine runners on base. “It’s so easy to kind of — I don’t want to say ‘overreact’ — but so easy to kind of say, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?'”
“I think everyone down there knows it’s going to turn,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said, “but it doesn’t mean there’s not frustration about when it’s going to. That’s probably the best way to say it is that, I do take a lot of comfort in the underlying stuff, but ultimately, we’ve got to start scoring runs at the right times and we’ve got to start winning games.”
Maybe it is overreacting to get too concerned this early in the season. When your last 10 losses have been by three runs or less, bad luck does play a part. But the continuous failure to get the big hit — leading to the team scuffling at a time when it could be taking advantage of rough stretches for the rest of the National League Central — can be concerning. Fans angst over that is justified.
It does, however, go back to that mental side of the game. The Cubs couldn’t afford to let themselves get too low during this stretch, just like they couldn’t afford to get to high when things were going well. Yes, they grew frustrated when close losses piled up, but they also didn’t forget about what they proved they could do when they were firing on all cylinders.
“Just a reassurance of what we can do, what we’re capable of,” Wisdom said. “Just not panicking in a sense. We understood what we needed to get back to, and that’s just being true to who we are as hitters up and down and knowing what we’re capable of.”
As Wednesday’s game got underway, a familiar feeling crept in.
In their first scoring opportunity in the second inning, the Cubs loaded the bases on a two-out single by Cody Bellinger and a back-to-back walks for Trey Mancini and Yan Gomes. That brought up freshly recalled Christopher Morel, who was arguably the top hitter in the minor leagues to start the year. But instead of getting at least one run in to tie the ballgame, some back luck struck again — a called strike three on a ball inside ended the rally.
“Sometimes when it just continues to linger on,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “you just kind of hold your breath, like, when is that big knock going to come?”
Ross didn’t have to wait much longer for that answer.
The Cardinals went up two in the top of the third, but the Cubs responded with a double by Swanson, a double by Seiya Suzuki and a two-run home run by Wisdom that gave the Cubs a lead they never relinquished. The next inning, Mancini walked again, and the Yan Gomes (fresh off the seven-day concussion injured list) clubbed his sixth homer of the season.
For a team that couldn’t buy a hit with runners in scoring position the last couple of weeks, the Cubs finished the game 6-for-14 in that situation. During that previous 12-game stretch, the Cubs had just five extra-base hits with RISP. On Wednesday, they had four alone, helping them score double-digit runs for the first time in a long time in the 10-4 win.
The Cubs couldn’t seem to get that big hit for an extended period of time. They finally got them in bunches in the series finale.
“Pushing runs across, especially multiple runs, kind of breaking it open there where can breathe a little bit,” Ross said. “Guys don’t put so much pressure on themselves. Just a really nice flow to the offense tonight.”
Hoyer and Ross both attributed the recent issues with getting the big hits in part to just the randomness of baseball. That’s not an unfair explanation. In a small sample, luck can have an effect. That’s feels especially true after seeing the Cubs seemingly flip a switch and look more like they did the first few weeks of the year.
It’s only one game, of course. They have to continue to ride this wave and start racking up the wins again. Luck will play a part, but the Cubs feel like they can just continue to do the right things, the balls will start bouncing their way.
“I think what’s consistent is our ability to put guys on, keep putting the pressure,” Gomes said. “I think we just stick with it. Hits are going to come. Today, hits came.”