After dropping the series opener against the Brewers on Monday, Dansby Swanson still believed the Cubs had the ability to come back around and take the last two games of the three-game set at Wrigley Field. He was confident that what the team had done to pile up wins — a 27-14 record from the All-Star break through Sunday, second-best in the National League — was still enough to beat the NL Central leaders.
“At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing for us is just playing our brand of baseball,” Swanson said. “Obviously, we didn’t do that [Monday]. But I know that we’re capable of so much more.”
Justin Steele led the way to victory Tuesday to knot up the series. So, Wednesday’s winner-takes-all series finale had the big-game feel that the Cubs have strived to play their way back to ever since falling 10 games below .500 back in early June. With Kyle Hendricks going up against the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, it truly felt like a playoff atmosphere.
And of course, who better to have on the bump than the guy who out-dueled Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS? The guy who started Game 7 of the World Series that saw the Cubs end their 108-year title drought? The guy who returned after an 11-month rehab process from a capsular tear in his right shoulder and posted a 3.80 ERA in 18 starts heading into Wednesday?
“He’s seen a lot of different scenarios, a lot more than a lot of guys in that room,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
The confidence from every watching has grown every time Hendricks has pitched this season, and it grew pretty significantly after watching him perform against Milwaukee.
Hendricks maneuvered through three different innings in which the Brewers had multiple runners on base, allowing just one run (unearned) across six frames. The bullpen limited Milwaukee to just one more run over the last three innings, Cody Bellinger drove in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth with a comebacker that careened off the pitcher, and the Cubs won the game, 3-2, to finish off the series victory.
It’s no secret that Hendricks struggled between 2021 and ’22. That aligned with the struggles the team as a whole faced as the front office reset the roster and began what they hoped would be a quick rebuild. So, Hendricks looking more like “The Professor” — he now has six quality starts in his last nine outings — might feel even sweeter as it coincides with the Cubs fighting their way back into the playoff race.
“It’s awesome,” Hendricks said. “This is what it’s all about for every single guy in there. We come into the ballpark every day, looking at, ‘What can we do to help the team today? Even if I’m not in there playing, just bringing energy, whatever it happens to be. Our leaders and those guys in the lineup every single day, man, they just love going out there and playing baseball. And that trickles down to everybody else. We’re just really loving the game, loving coming to the ballpark every day, and it shows with the product on the field.”
No, the Cubs offense didn’t explode against the Brewers. They scored just six runs across all three contests. But they also know that their “brand of baseball” is built on solid pitching, good defense and timely hitting, and they got back to doing those things in the last two games of the series.
“I think our brand of baseball is trying to find a way to win,” Ross said. “Our brand of baseball is consistent defense, good defensive plays. I think if you go back and, like, watch the tape — what you’d do in the NFL — you could find a lot of areas that we could be a little bit better. But we pitched, made plays when we had to and got got a couple key hits. That’s what you’ve got to do sometimes.”
“That is the baseball that’s going to be played,” Bellinger said. “I mean, you’re going to have a variety of games. But to be in the position that we were just in multiple times against a really good team, it’s good to come out on top of those.”
Ross also pointed out two plays, specifically, that won’t show up in the box score as anything special, but they were instrumental in keeping the Cubs ahead for most of the game:
- When Rowdy Tellez led off the second inning with a sharp line drive to the outfield, Mike Tauchman was able to cut it off and hold Tellez to only a single.
“That’s just a lot more of a pressure situation there [if Tellez gets to second].”
- With William Contreras on second base in the fifth and the Cubs up 2-1, Carlos Santana hit a grounder up the middle. If that ball gets to the outfield, Contreras likely scores. Instead, Nico Hoerner dove and snagged the ball, keeping the runner at third. Hendricks then left both runners at the corners with a swinging strikeout to end the frame.
“Knocking it down, saving the run. You could see Dansby right behind [Hoerner] sliding. Both those guys were hell bent on not letting that ball get to the outfield, and that’s going to save us a run.”
Sure, both were base hits. But they were also the types of plays good teams make, and in tight, pressure-filled games, they matter.
“That stuff carries over,” Ross said. “Those are winning plays.”
With the series victory, the Cubs move to within three games of the Brewers atop the division. They have a two-game lead for the second NL Wild Card (depending on the Diamondbacks/Dodgers result Wednesday night). FanGraphs gives them a 77.1 percent chance to make the postseason with 29 games remaining.
Winning the Central and securing home-field advantage in the Wild Card round should be the goal, but nobody in that clubhouse believes their season lives or dies with that. Their focus is on playing deep into October, regardless of how they end up getting there.
“Everybody just loves playing baseball in this group and on this team, so that always helps,” Hendricks said. “You want to come to the ballpark, and you want to go out there and play. Our guys are just locked in, keeping it simple pitch to pitch, and we know where we want to be in the end. That’s a huge motivating factor for us.”