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When this week’s homestand started, it was not 100 percent clear which approach the Cubs front office would take to the trade deadline. However, they answered that question pretty quickly, acquiring Jeimer Candelario from the Nationals and José Cuas from the Royals instead of trading away key pieces like Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger.
From there, the onus fell to the team. They had played well enough to merit a vote of confidence from the front office leading up to the deadline, so with the Reds and Braves in town for the week, the question then became whether the Cubs could keep winning.
The team responded by going 5-2 on this homestand, climbing to a second-place tie in the National League and a tie for the last NL Wild Card spot. The weekend series against the Braves started on a down note, with the Cubs getting blanked by Max Fried on Friday, but they punched back with an 8-6 win on Saturday and a 6-4 win on Sunday to earn the series victory.
All wins count the same in the standings, but there is something to be said for taking two of three from Atlanta. The Braves have the NL’s best record and the second-highest run differential in baseball.
“It’s no secret that the thought across the league is that the National League is running through the Braves right now,” Mike Tauchman said. “That’s a really good team over there, so for us to be able to get a series win against them, it’s evidence that if we execute the way that we can, if we play baseball the way that we can, we can compete with anybody.”
The series win over Atlanta put the Cubs in a tie with Cincinnati for second place in their division. Thanks to Reds and Brewers losses on Sunday, the Cubs moved to 1 1/2 games out of the NL Central lead. In the Wild Card, a Marlins loss helped push the Cubs into a tie for third spot with Cincinnati. If the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs.
Considering that the Cubs had the worst record in the NL as recently as May 28, this is a remarkable position for the team to be in.
“The entire year we’ve felt like we’ve had the ballclub and the pieces in place to compete at a high level with whoever the team may be. We as a group have felt that way the entire time,” Justin Steele said.
Still, they had to prove that in June and July. Otherwise, the team would almost certainly have traded away a few key pieces, and the rebuild would have stretched for another season. The team did its part, going 29-22 in those two months to end July at .500.
For that effort, the front office decided to buy at the deadline.
“It feels good for the guys up top to make the decision to add pieces rather than trade away,” Steele said. “It’s definitely helped. I feel like it’s kind of boosted the locker room a little bit. We’re just fired up to show up each and every day.”
“Momentum is a powerful thing, and I think when you play well, and then you get the backing of the front office, I think that helps the momentum. That helps the confidence. That helps the belief,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
This weekend’s series was a good litmus test for whether the Cubs really could hang with the best team in the NL.
The bullpen and a resilient offense were the keys to getting the two wins after Friday’s shutout. On Saturday, Javier Assad spot-started in place of Stroman and delivered. He pitched into the fourth inning and held the Braves to two runs. From there, relievers Michael Fulmer, Daniel Palencia, Mark Leiter, Jr., Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay held Atlanta at bay for 5 1/3 innings.
In Sunday’s finale, Steele notched his league-leading 13th win, but he was not as sharp as usual, giving up eight hits and handing out four free passes. He allowed four runs but pitched into the sixth inning, and again, the bullpen stepped up. Fulmer and Leiter picked up high-leverage outs for the second day in a row, with Cuas taking the seventh inning and Alzolay earning his 10th consecutive save (and 14th of the season).
On the other side of the ledger, the offense gave Assad some cushion with a five-run first inning Saturday, and they wiped away two Braves leads Sunday. They trailed 2-0 in the top of the third inning, knotted the score in the bottom of third, and after the Braves took a 3-2 lead in the fifth, the Cubs scored three runs in the bottom of the inning. They never trailed again.
“They’re continuing to go out and play baseball for nine innings,” Ross said. “They’re not taking anything for granted. I think that’s a strength of a good team. That’s a product of winning, believing in yourself, confidence. Proving to yourself that you’re a good team.”
There are fifty games left in the season, and the Cubs still have ground to cover in order to secure a spot in the playoffs, whether it’s as division champions or with a Wild Card berth. Either way, there is a prevailing sense in the clubhouse of having something to prove — even after taking it to the Braves.
“Going on a run, getting backed by the front office. All these little dominos that fall just continue to reiterate the confidence that everybody has around here, and you see it play out against a really good team,” Ross said.
Wrigley Field is always a special atmosphere, but the magnitude of the last few weeks has given the Friendly Confines an October feeling.
“The crowd getting on their feet, all the way from the first inning through the ninth inning in big spots,” Fulmer said, “it really gives us a big boost of adrenaline and kind of gives us the will to want to do it even more and get the job done.”
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