Memorial Day is informally considered one of the first spots on the baseball calendar when it’s safe to take stock of where a team stands. We have seen enough games played, at-bats taken, and innings thrown to get an idea of what the rest of the summer will probably hold.
In the Cubs’ case, they look from the outside like a team that is perilously close to skidding out of control. They’re well below .500 and at the bottom of the division and the National League. They just got swept at home by the Reds and have the Rays – the best team in baseball – in town before going on a long road trip. Memorial Day could have been the death knell for hopes of a winning summer of Cubs baseball.
Instead, Marcus Stroman took the mound and delivered a complete game shutout.
“Throwing a [complete game] at Wrigley, that’s one of the top moments in my career,” he said.
A 1-0 win against Tampa Bay doesn’t necessarily mean the tides are going to turn back in the Cubs’ direction. They started off well in April, but May has been horrendous. The first month of the season showed how good they could be, but this last one has shown the opposite end of that spectrum. They are 9-17 in May, and it is going to take a lot of games like Monday’s for the Cubs to climb their way out of the hole they dug themselves into.
But getting on a roll has to start somewhere. Stroman limited the Rays – who lead baseball in batting average (.273) and runs scored (335) going into Monday’s game – to one hit, one walk, and one hit batsman. The Cubs had lost four in a row going into the Rays series, but the sweep against Cincinnati looked especially like a low point for the team. Saturday night’s loss, for example, took the Cubs from third in the National League Central to last. They also took on the lowest winning percentage in the NL that night.
“We needed a stop and to get things rolling,” Stroman said. “I think we’ve been on a little skid, not necessarily anything I’m worried about, baseball’s a game of trends and ups and downs, but I think it should hopefully give us a little momentum.”
Getting that momentum going in this series was important for Stroman on a granular level, too. He has struggled a lot against the Rays in his career; he was 5-8 with a 5.04 ERA against them headed into the Memorial Day start. But on Monday, he got a career-high 20 swings and misses and notched eight strikeouts. Wander Franco had the lone hit of the game, a well-placed single that left his bat under 70 mph leading off the seventh inning.
Leaning heavily on his sinker through the first two innings, Stroman got five of the first six outs via groundballs. He ended with 11 groundball outs and incorporated his cutter, slider and four-seam fastball as the game progressed, eventually racking up the eight strikeouts and getting a few outs on fly balls. Stroman said he and catcher Tucker Barnhart were so in sync that he never had to shake him off.
“It was like playing a video game. He made it super easy,” Barnhart said of his starter.
Stroman was so dominant that, other than Seiya Suzuki making a catch in the seventh inning and holding Franco on second base with his throw and then Dansby Swanson turning a double play to end that frame, there was little pressure on the defense. Typically, a strong outing on the mound is at least somewhat supported by the gloves behind him, but Stroman made sure they didn’t have to do a whole lot.
“It didn’t really feel like there was a ball that was going to kind of put us in a precarious situation,” Barnhart said. “There wasn’t really enough that I would say ‘That was a tough play’ or anything like that. Stro was just dominant today.”
Stroman took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and didn’t allow any baserunners to that point other than hitting Luke Fraley in the foot in the third. He took a couple of moments to acknowledge the Wrigley crowd, especially as the game went on, but he said he has to stay very present in the moment and the job of pitching. Otherwise, he can get out of a groove pretty easily.
“I’m truly just focusing on my body and my mind each and every pitch, and when I do that, I’m usually pretty good,” Stroman said. “I try to stay out of getting too excited or letting myself get kind of out of my zone, because when I do I feel like my mechanics and my pitches are off.”
There was no indication from Ross or Stroman that this was a deliberate performance, given the potential weight of the moment. Not that a player can ever simply decide to dominate one of the best teams in baseball on any given day, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Stroman stepped up in this spot in particular.
Again, it’s the Rays in town after a tough series against Cincinnati. After this, the Cubs leave for a very long west coast road trip against the Padres, Angels, and Giants. Getting out of the rut of May can look like a daunting task, and the start of June not much more hopeful.
Given what the Cubs have done recently and how much worse things could get going forward, Monday’s win might have been an important step in the right direction for the team.
“The circumstances, how we’ve been going as of late,” Ross said. “The pressure that you gotta feel coming in. It’s a lot piling up there to look forward if you want to and try to have a lot of negative thoughts. What big time players do is what he did today.”
Stroman’s performance was even more valuable because it kept the Cubs bullpen out of the game. They have struggled lately, losing a lead on Saturday most recently, and on the season as a whole: Their 4.65 ERA ranks 26th in baseball.
The Cubs had positive expectations for this season, and until May started, it looked like they could exceed those. The next few weeks will have to tell whether they end up in another July selloff, or whether they are giving the Wrigley faithful meaningful games in the summer and fall.
“We all want that. There’s nothing more that every single person wants more than that,” Stroman said. “Everyone in this clubhouse is doing everything in their power to go out there and perform, so hopefully things start going our way.”