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Five games in a row. Five series in a row. The Cubs have been doing a lot of winning lately, and in so doing, they might be giving a glimpse of what the near future could hold.
Their latest win, an eleven-inning 6-5 victory over the Brewers, showcased all of what a winning ballclub needs to have: quality starting pitching, good defense, an effective bullpen, and timely hitting.
“They’re all pulling the same end of the rope,” manager David Ross said. “It just seems like everybody has slotted in nicely. Nobody cares where they’re playing, they just want to be playing, they want to help support each other.”
On Saturday, starter Marcus Stroman set the tone, settling in after giving up a run in the first inning. After Willy Adames hit a single in the second at-bat of the game, Stroman went into the top of the eighth before he allowed another base hit. In all, Stroman was one out shy of going eight full innings, ultimately giving up just two runs while striking out five.
Some of Stroman’s success was thanks to the defense behind him. Shortstop Nico Hoerner, in particular. Going into Saturday’s game, Hoerner had 12 defensive runs saved, per Fangraphs, which put him in a tie with Houston’s Jeremy Pena for the second-most among shortstops in all of baseball.
Stroman said he believes Hoerner does not get appropriate credit around the league for his defense, and both Ross and left fielder Ian Happ praised Hoerner’s glovework on Saturday. Happ joked that there were several plays when he expected to be making a play on a base hit into the outfield, only to see Hoerner’s glove appear out of nowhere and grab the ball.
“Playing the in the middle of the field, I take a lot of pride in that every day,” Hoerner said.
Hoerner got Andrew McCutchen out on a 105 mile per hour liner in the sixth inning, and Luis Urias on two liners around 100 miles per hour in the seventh and ninth innings. All three batted balls in play had expected batting averages well over .800. But Hoerner and Stroman both said his play to get Christian Yelich in the sixth inning was the best of the afternoon because he had to range over and play the shift.
“I obviously believe in myself as a shortstop,” Hoerner said. “I’ve said that for a while, and I think people believe that now.”
Questions hover around the team, even in August, about how the Cubs will handle free agency in the offseason. Some of what they do might affect Hoerner. Carlos Correa was a heavy target last winter, and he could be again. Despite Hoerner’s success both at the plate and on the field, he could get pushed aside in the name of building a team that can contend in 2023.
Something like that might create some negative tension in a lot of clubhouses, but Hoerner said that is not the case in the Wrigley locker room.
“If they make moves that are going to help us win baseball games, that’s not going to be a huge issue around here,” he said. “If we have the issue of having too many good players, I’ll like that problem.”
Hoerner’s teammate up the middle, Nick Madrigal, supplied three hits Saturday, including a game-tying RBI in the ninth inning. Timely hitting like that made the quality performance from Stroman worthwhile. Willson Contreras hit a go-ahead homerun in the fifth inning, and then the Cubs battled in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh frames to eventually win in a walk-off. The final hit was another one from Contreras.
“There’s no one who wants to come through for the team more than Willy,” Stroman said.
Obviously the Cubs can do these things in the microcosm of one game or even a stretch of series. The difference through the final month and a half of this season and next year will be whether or not they figure out how to do it all together consistently.
But right now, the Cubs are in the midst of an impressive stretch. One that could be showing the kind of baseball they are capable of at some point. The kind that could be even better with a few additions in the offseason. They have an 11-7 record in August, and they are winning a lot of the kinds of close games that weren’t going their way earlier in the season. Some of that is just goofy baseball luck – the ball bounces your way until it doesn’t – but some of it is the mentality in the clubhouse.
Stroman said he told a family member recently that he has been impressed by the demeanor of his teammates through the extreme ups and downs the season has brought.
“You couldn’t really tell the difference between a 10-game losing streak and a 10-game winning streak. It was very even. I think that’s extremely important,” he said.
Ross has spoken of the value and importance of having a winning culture all season. One of his goals has been for his younger and less experienced players to learn how to win and do it on a regular basis, and how to persist through difficult stretches and challenging games. They have done a lot of that over the last couple of weeks.
“The value here is the players are doing that and continue to support each other and come in here with a lot of high confidence and going about their business and still continue to work no matter what’s asked of them. I think that is a winning culture and a winning environment,” Ross said.
“Confidence is a strong thing in this game, and these guys got a lot of it right now.”
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