Labor Day, or the “end of summer” around these parts, has come and gone. School is back in session. So, the fact that the smallest home crowd (at 28,684) since July 19 — when the Cubs were still clawing their way back to .500 — isn’t a total shock. But with their team in the thick of a playoff race facing off against another National League contender, the fans still provided the atmosphere the matchup with the Giants deserved.
“This town loves baseball,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I think they love the Cubs. I think they love Wrigley Field. This place gets as rockin as any place I’ve been. I think what’s fun for me is you’re seeing it on a Tuesday night and school is back in [session], stuff like that. That’s when you know playoffs are kind of around.”
The Cubs didn’t fail to reward the people who showed up.
Like we’ve seen a number of times in this two-month turnaround, they fought. They grinded out at-bats. They strung together hits and put balls in play to put the pressure on the defense. When San Francisco went up 3-0 in the third and 6-4 in the sixth, they rallied back to eventually snatch an 11-8 win and clinch the series.
No moment in the game felt more pivotal than when Christopher Morel stepped to the plate in the bottom of the sixth.
The Cubs had already brought three runs across the plate in the inning to take a 7-6 lead. Seiya Suzuki had smacked a game-tying two-run home run that continued an impressive 25-game hot stretch at the plate, one that began when he returned to the lineup after a quick reset in early August. Nick Madrigal later chopped a ball to the third base that brought Jeimer Candelario home on a throwing error that put the Cubs ahead by a run. But with a bullpen whose high-leverage arms had been carrying a heavy workload the past few weeks and the wind blowing out, a one-run lead didn’t feel all that safe. Some insurance runs seemed almost necessary.
Up to the plate stepped Morel.
The 24-year-old phenom had been on a cold stretch. From the start of August through Monday, he’d hit just .148 with a .533 OPS. Still, Morel had thrived in some of the team’s biggest moments as the it continued its climb up the standings. Whether it was driving in the go-ahead run in Toronto on Aug. 12 or walking off the White Sox with a three-run homer eight days later, when the game is on the line, Morel seems to thrive.
“He just has such a knack for incredible moments, and it seems like it really just kind of elevates his focus,” said Nico Hoerner, who was standing in the on-deck circle at the time.
With two runners in scoring position, he fell behind in a 1-2 count. But when Luke Jackson’s slider crossed in the bottom of the zone, Morel didn’t miss his shot for another memorable moment. He crushed the ball to straightaway center, a 431-foot, three-run shot that gave the Cubs room to breathe with a four-run lead.
And with the crowd letting out a roar so loud it felt like a packed house at Wrigley, Morel provided a highlight-reel worthy bat flip to cap it off.
“I do sometimes feel like my at-bat after a home run like that is kind of funky sometimes. It feels kind of insignificant,” Hoerner said with a laugh. “He’s electric. That was a totally game-changing moment.”
It was the kind of win the Cubs keep putting together during this stretch, regardless of what their opponents have thrown at them. The never-say-die, never-give up attitude that always seems cliche to talk about has defined this team.
On a micro level, the Cubs responded every time the Giants built a lead Tuesday night. On a macro level, they responded to falling 10 games below .500 on June 8 by going 49-28 since. No matter what is situation that they’re facing, the Cubs’ belief in themselves continues to drive their success.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Kyle Hendricks, who took a no-decision. “We’ve talked about it. It’s just good vibes all around. No matter where we’re at in the game, we know we have a chance.”
With the win, the Cubs are 75-64. They’ve now won 12 of their 16 series since the All-Star break (and also split two others). They’re just 2 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and 1 1/2 games back of the Phillies for the top Wild Card spot, and they hold a three-game lead on the second Wild Card spot over everyone below them.
The Cubs have talked all year about how good of a team they believed they could be. Even at their lowest points of the season, that never wavered. And now that they continue to play like it, now that they control their own postseason destiny, that belief isn’t just talk.
“I love this team, but the group in there has believed in themselves since spring training. It’s very obvious,” Ross said. “This team talks about winning. There are a lot of winners in that room, guys with hardware. We’ve talked about that for a long time.
“I think once the train got rolling, it’s going to be hard to stop, because these guys know how good they are.”