For a couple of weeks, Cubs manager David Ross had an extra assistant coach in the clubhouse and in the dugout. Thanks to a left heel contusion suffered in Milwaukee on July 5, All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson had been relegated to trying to help the Cubs win by imparting knowledge wherever he could.
“He’s tried to be manager and hitting coach and infield coach,” Ross joked Saturday. “He just can’t turn it off. It’s been fun watching him interact around the dugout and in the clubhouse.”
Swanson was activated from the 10-day injured list before Saturday’s game against the Cardinals, so he will have to put his budding coaching career on hold for now.
“My wife tells me I’m for sure coaching. I do enjoy helping other people. That’s just kind of my personality,” Swanson said.
Obviously, Swanson would prefer to play every day; he has missed just two games in his last three seasons. But there were some advantages to the time off of the field. He said observing from the dugout gave him a chance to take a zoomed out view of the team. Swanson has brought with him an attention to detail that Ross and his teammates noticed quickly.
For example, Swanson has pointed out ways the infielders can better position themselves for cutoff throws and relays. Ross said he has an eye for the little things like that and is always eager to talk about what he’s seeing and thinking.
“He sees a lot. He’s very aware of the surroundings, how the game is moving,” Ross said. “It’s just really important to value the small details and notice those in-game. Even when you have a game that you win, and notice things that need to improve.”
During Swanson’s absence, the Cubs went 5-5. Three of those wins were come-from-behind victories. Swanson said one of the things that stood out to him during his IL layoff was the way his team responded when opponents took leads.
In his first game back on Saturday, that trend continued. The Cubs won 8-6 despite trailing the Cardinals four different times. The first three times they fell behind, the Cubs tied the game in response. They eventually took the lead for good after a three-run sixth inning.
Swanson was a catalyst for some of that scoring; he doubled in the second inning and scored a game-tying run on a Christopher Morel single, and then he hit an RBI single that tied things up again in the third.
“I feel like we’ve responded well to when other teams have scored, too, being able to add a few more runs on our own,” Swanson said. “Our biggest thing is to stay on the attack, be aggressive whenever we’re playing offense.”
That kind of fight is always good to see, but the Cubs are in a precarious position thanks to inconsistent play and some bad stretches earlier in the season. They did well in June, going 14-11, but that wasn’t enough to make up for a 10-18 May and playing right around .500 otherwise. There is just over a week until the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and it is likely that Swanson will be saying goodbye to at least a couple of teammates. Cody Bellinger is an increasingly intriguing trade piece by the day, and Marcus Stroman is having one of his career-best seasons.
There’s a chance that, if they can inch up the standings in the National League Central and in the NL Wild Card race enough in the next week or so, the Cubs won’t be sellers at the trade deadline. Their remaining games before Aug. 1 — five more against the Cardinals, two against the White Sox and one against the Reds — might be an opportunity to make a case to be buyers. The Cubs would have to get closer to the top of the NL Central and play well enough to demonstrate that they can compete down the stretch, and it’s possible that fighting back from being behind in games lately has helped do that.
But the Cubs went after Swanson in part because of the way he approaches the game, especially behind the scenes, and because of his experiences on successful teams with the Braves. Every player on every team knows the balance of weathering the ups and downs of a long season and of working to win each game. True, some stretches of the season seem more important than others and require a different sense of urgency, but seemingly every one has pointed to the way Swanson carries himself daily.
“Each game is each game, and that’s one thing that the good teams I’ve been on have really taken that seriously,” Swanson said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s the first or ninth inning. Each game, each moment, it’s obviously important to be able to look at them the same way.
“Whether it’s the first game, or the 73rd game, or the 90th game, each day our job is to go out and perform at a high level.”
It’s clear that the Cubs as a group are galvanized by Swanson’s presence. Even when he was not playing, he continued to display the kind of leadership that made him an attractive free agent last winter. Jokes about being an assistant coach aside, that’s part of the reason he was signed to a long-term contract that signifies the organization’s turn from rebuilding toward contention.
They might — and probably will — still trade away some players at the deadline in a week, but Swanson has established himself as a cornerstone of the team’s future.
“Dansby is really important to our success, and his play has been missed,” Ross said. “Having him in the lineup, his leadership on the field, obviously defensively his hardware speaks for itself. It’s nice having him back.”