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After all the energy the Cubs used to claw their way back from 10 games below .500 in June and to grind away part of what had grown to be an 8 1/2-game deficit in the National League Central, do they still have to floor it over the next two weeks?
Even after a 5-3 loss to the White Sox on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ next 11 games comes against a mixture of four teams (Sox, Royals, Tigers and Pirates) who enter Wednesday a combined 92 games below .500. In that time, the Brewers have 10 more against the Dodgers, Rangers, Twins and Padres, who enter Wednesday a combined 48 games above .500. So, maybe the Cubs — who remained 3 1/2 games back of the Brewers after they lost to the Dodgers — can let off a little bit?
“We’re in the second half of August now. It’s a sprint to the end. We can see where we’re headed now, so no, there’s none of that,” said Kyle Hendricks, who tossed his ninth quality start (six innings, three earned runs) of the season but took a no-decision. “No taking our foot off the gas or getting fatigued at all. I think we’ve been playing great baseball. Had a couple of good off days here for us to kind of get fresh. But no, the mindset and the mentality, everyone is locked in, keyed in. We’re in a good spot.”
Those questions were obviously not going to get any other answer. No, the Cubs can’t afford to take it easy. This stretch of games is their newest most important stretch of the season. This is when they can take advantage of a softer spot in their schedule (and hope that Milwaukee’s opponents take care of business on their end).
Not that the Cubs can just look at the upcoming schedule and assume anything. This is baseball. Bad teams beat good teams all the time. Even the worst team in the majors this season (the historically-bad A’s) is still on pace to win 44 games. So, the Cubs can’t just overlook the teams they’re playing in this stretch.
“We’re not taking anyone lightly,” Hendricks said. “I mean, everyone that comes in here, we know we’ve got to win every game. We’ve got to come into the ballpark every day putting our best chance forward to win, no matter who the opponent is.”
“Everyone’s a big leaguer,” Dansby Swanson said. “It doesn’t matter what team. It doesn’t matter what the record is. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night. We know and understand that, and I think that for us, we just got to go out and continue to [perform].”
Even if they didn’t understand that before the game, they learned that lesson the hard way Tuesday night.
The Cubs dropped the series opener to a bad White Sox team, one they’d swept during the South Side portion of the Crosstown Classic last month. Despite a first-inning, two-run home run from Ian Happ and a fourth-inning solo shot from Seiya Suzuki, the Cubs couldn’t muster up any more offense. They recorded just two base hits against a White Sox relief corps that still enters Wednesday ranked No. 24 in bullpen ERA (4.54).
Fortunately for the Cubs, both the Brewers and Reds lost, so the top three spots in the division standings remained unchanged. The Marlins also lost, so the Cubs are still only a game out of the last NL Wild Card spot.
But Tuesday was another reminder that they can’t afford to take anyone lightly.
“I think the biggest thing that’s been beneficial for us this year is being able to prepare each and every day, no matter who we’re playing,” Dansby Swanson said. “I think that when you look inward, you get better results, because it’s so easy to play up to certain competition and down to others. So, I think the biggest thing is just to focus on ourselves and be the best team we can be each and every day.”
The Cubs haven’t felt this kind of pressure to win ballgames this late in a full season since 2019. It hasn’t felt like every fan in the crowd is paying close to attention to every pitch in a long time.
After two straight years of selling at the deadline, the Cubs’ front office decided to let the team push for a playoff spot. Did the players expend a lot of energy — physically, mentally and emotionally — just to play themselves back into postseason hunt? Yes, and they want to keep that feeling going, even in what should be an easy stretch of games.
“I think that’s something that doesn’t go away. I think that’s a good thing,” Hendricks said. “We know that the pressure is on us out there, which you want pressure. That means there’s something riding on it. We go out there every single day, and we want that feeling.”
But again, this is baseball. Good teams can’t afford to look past the bad teams on their schedule. If they do, games like Tuesday will happen.
After the Cubs and Brewers’ complete their respective slates in 12 days, they face off for a three-game set at Wrigley Field to end August. There’s a very real shot for the Cubs enter September atop the division. To make that happen, they just have to get back to taking care of business.
“It’s the big leagues,” Hendricks said. “These guys are all great players, man, and all great teams. Everybody’s playing good right now, so no matter who comes in — we’ve been playing good against the good teams. We’ve got to take care of the other business, too.
“There’s no bad teams in this league, no bad hitters, either. So, we’ve got to show up every single day, regardless of opponent, and just focus on our brand of baseball and play the best brand that we can.”
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