Recently, Cubs manager David Ross wanted to get some thoughts from a player who knows what it’s like being on a team stuck in a holding pattern in the middle of the season.
“[Ross] just kind of picked my brain about that year, and then I know he’s picked Yan [Gomes’] brain about 2019 in Washington, those kind of similar kinds of scenarios,” said Dansby Swanson, referring to both his 2021 Braves (who didn’t get over .500 until Aug. 6 before going on to win the World Series) and Gomes’ 2019 Nationals (who went from 19-31 to a title team).
“I think you have to take it with a bird’s-eye view at times and just say, ‘Hey, we’re not playing good right now, but you always have to stay in the fight. You always gotta show up every day to compete, and good things will start to happen.’ I think that just a little bit of that adjustment in mindset has been good. It’s gotten everybody on the same page. No matter who you are, where you hit, when you come in the game to pitch, we’re all after the same thing.”
Though the Cubs entered Thursday still seven games under .500, the overall bad play from the rest of the National League Central still had them just 4 1/2 games out of first place. Trying to go from fourth place to first might be a more daunting task in other seasons. But for the 2023 Cubs, it’s far from impossible.
Nobody is running away with the division right now. The Cubs need only take it one game at a time, play good baseball and take advantage of their opportunities. Or, as Swanson said, “Stay in the fight.”
“That was really good: ‘Stay in the fight.’ We should get T-shirts printed up,” Ross quipped.
Jokes aside, the Cubs are doing exactly that. After beating the Pirates 7-2 on Thursday, the Cubs swept the series at Wrigley Field. It’s only their second series sweep of the season, and though they are still six games under .500, they’ve won five of their last six and are now only 3 1/2 games back of Pittsburgh atop the division.
Ross wouldn’t necessarily say it’s “go-time” right now, because “it’s never not go-time in the major leagues for me” and “I want to win them all.” Still, the Cubs’ recent decision-making signals that they understand this is an important stretch.
When Cody Bellinger began his rehab assignment Tuesday, it wasn’t because the Cubs thought it was time for him to retake his spot in center field. He’d been on the shelf for nearly a month with a bone bruise on his left knee, and they didn’t think he was completely ready to man the outfield again.
Instead, Bellinger played first base Tuesday and Wednesday for Triple-A Iowa. It’s a spot he played plenty of early in his career, but why would the Cubs want him to shift positions? Mike Tauchman filling in admirably for him helped, of course, but moving him to first also represented a path to getting Bellinger back into the big league lineup earlier. In theory, playing there should offer more protection for the knee than he would get going back out to center.
Was it a surprise to see Bellinger get activated Thursday after only two rehab games? Sure, but after heading to Arizona over the weekend before joining Iowa, the Cubs felt he’d gotten to a point where he was ready to come back in a first-base capacity. And as we should’ve expected, Bellinger tested out the knee with a hustle double that drove in the eventual game-winning RBI.
“Belli is a big part of the team,” said Christopher Morel — who went 3-for-3 with a triple and 2 RBIs in the win — through team interpreter Fredy Quevedo Jr. “Just like a car doesn’t run without a motor, Belli definitely is that motor for our team. He is very big and important for us, for the coaches, for all the players. It’s definitely great having him back.”
On the other side of activating Bellinger was the Cubs’ decision to option Matt Mervis to Triple-A. There’s really nothing left for Mervis to prove at that level. Before getting called up for the first time on May 5, he was slashing .286/.402/.560 with six homers and 27 RBIs. He was dominating Triple-A pitching to the point that the Cubs couldn’t ignore the results anymore.
But the jump from Triple-A to the major leagues is enormous. If it wasn’t before, that became apparent when Mervis struggled to get results in the big leagues (47 wRC+, .240 wOBA, 32.3% K%), even with some underlying stats (50% hard-hit rate, 13.8% barrel rate) that said his numbers probably should’ve been better.
In a different season, the Cubs might’ve let one of their top hitting prospects try to right the ship. Mervis’ leash would’ve been longer, and if they didn’t have a legitimate shot at making a playoff push, the Cubs probably let him stick it out longer.
But that’s an example of the buttons the Cubs are pushing to try and “stay in the fight.” They’re moving a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder to first base, and they’re sending a promising first-base prospect back to the minor leagues. Those moves are likely temporary, but they’re moves the Cubs believe give them the best chance to pick up some wins right now. After sweeping the Pirates, clearly the buttons they’ve pushed lately are working.
“We can read outside narratives or narratives can get created; the fact is you stay true to your processes and work hard to get better every single day,” Ross said. “I think I’ve talked about that since I’ve been the manager here: Try to improve on the daily and keep the focus on winning every single night, and this stuff pans out in the end.
“As we continue to get more talented players, guys establish themselves as big leaguers and continue to trust in the processes, like everybody says, good things are going to happen. I believe that. It’s a winning group in there and a talented group. You’ve just got to keep your head down and continue to work.”
Can this series be a turning point in the Cubs’ season? Maybe, but Pittsburgh isn’t exactly one of the best teams in the league. A bigger test looms with Baltimore, who owns the second-best record in the majors (43-25), set to visit Wrigley Field this weekend.
At the very least, though, this series gave them some confidence. The Cubs have been able to stop the bleeding and claw their way back into the division title race. That might be enough to give them the boost they need to continue on that right path.
“I think we feel like we have a little momentum going right now,” said Marcus Stroman, who tossed his sixth consecutive quality start (and 13th in 15 outings). “Things finally kind of turned in our favor. I think everybody in this clubhouse kind of knows a type of run like this is truly capable. So, it’s just a matter of going out there, staying true to our routine, staying true to our work and just competing every day, and hopefully, things will start to go our way. There’s nobody in the league we can’t play with. It’s just a matter of putting wins together.”