CHICAGO — This is (basically) what the Cubs wanted, right?
Sure, they’d definitely rather have a little more certainty of their playoff fate and no important relievers on the injured list, but it’s getting late in the last month of the regular season and the Cubs are in the thick of a playoff race. They’re relevant. Answering questions about a September swoon is still better than packing up your locker and scouring the fantasy football waiver wire.
September relevancy was the team’s goal coming into the year. A modest one, sure, but realistic. That’s why the Cubs became buyers instead of sellers in July. For moments like Tuesday when the Cubs (79-72) clobbered the visiting Pirates 14-1 to end a five-game losing skid and keep pace in the wild-card standings.
“I think the way that we handled the trade deadline was an opportunity, right?” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said before the game. “We had the chance to play baseball that really mattered and turn our season around in a way to put us in the place where we are right now.”
It wasn’t that long ago that we assumed the Cubs would be trade-deadline purveyors, restocking the farm system with an eye toward 2024 and beyond.
It’s too early to determine whether this season should be judged as a success or simply a modest disappointment. But failure has been tossed out as an option.
Context is important. This wasn’t a World Series-or-bust season. The Cubs went into the year hoping for the best and they’ve come pretty close to achieving it, relatively speaking. You can be angry about what the Cubs are not in the wake of the World Series window, but you can’t say this season hasn’t been enjoyable to experience.
Still, that doesn’t mean you dub the season a success if they flop down the stretch. But it’s too early for all of that talk.
One thing you can say now is Jeb Hoyer definitely made the right choice to go for it and not to trade Marcus Stroman and/or Cody Bellinger. This is a playoff-caliber team. Whether they actually make the postseason is up to the players.
It was a good start to the last dozen games of the season Tuesday.
Dansby Swanson and Seiya Suzuki homered early to help the Cubs build a cushion, and the team tacked on eight runs in the eighth inning, highlighted by rookie Alexander Canario’s first big-league home run, which just happened to be a grand slam. Cubs starter Javier Assad struck out eight and gave up just a solo homer in five innings. No one had to nitpick manager David Ross’ decisions. It was a welcome break for Cubs fans.
When a team flops in September, there’s always a question of whether they had hit the metaphorical wall. The season is a marathon but September is a sprint, as Ross said Tuesday afternoon.
“I always say a lot of times when you don’t hit, you looked tired,” Hoyer said. “We just haven’t hit during that (road) stretch. I don’t think the quality of our at-bats was nearly as good as when we were playing well. A lot of times people during those periods, people want to say the team looks flat, because when you have bases loaded, no one out twice and you get double-play balls, you look flat or tired. When guys are circling the bases, you look like you have a lot of energy.”
So, yeah, the Cubs didn’t look tired or flat Tuesday. It helped to be facing the Pirates, who have lost 10 of 11 games they’ve played against the Cubs this season.
“They just need something to turn it really,” Ross said of his hitters before the game. “It feels like we haven’t gotten that big double in the gap or three-run homer.”
“14 (runs) and air-tight defense, we’ll take that every night.” 😏 pic.twitter.com/nDjiUG7qW7
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) September 20, 2023
In times like this, a pennant race where things could go in two radically different directions, we talk to veteran players about how they can lead younger ones and we talk to managers about how they navigate a tense situation. But in reality, most of this is just fluff.
Can the players get the hits and outs they need to win a baseball game? Can a manager manage not to screw things up? Health is paramount, of course, but after availability, ability is, you know, kind of important.
So is luck. Hoyer watched the Cubs lose a 13-inning game in Arizona over the weekend while he was on a scouting trip in Japan and tried to remind himself of the games the Cubs have won this year by inches and milliseconds to make him feel better.
“We’ve gotten some breaks along the way,” Hoyer said. “And hopefully we get some more.”
They could use some good news in terms of health.
Right now, the Cubs’ top two relievers, Adbert Alzolay and Michael Fulmer, are on the injured list, along with infielder Jeimer Candelario, their major acquisition at the trade deadline. All three are slated to return before the end of the regular season, but the games they’re missing are important.
Stroman finally returned after a stint on the IL, but if he’s going to make an impact, it’s likely as a reliever, an unfamiliar position for him. Nick Madrigal just went on the IL with a hamstring strain, and the way Ross talked Tuesday, it doesn’t sound like we’ll see him again this season.
The Cubs aren’t fading and I’m not sure they’re getting stronger either. I don’t think this is a team of destiny nor do I think it’s the reincarnation of the 2004 team. It’s a group that deserves to taste October, even if it’s a small glass.
If this were last year, the main storyline of the night would have been Canario driving in five runs with a double and a grand slam in his first start and Pete Crow-Armstrong making his Wrigley debut. But this isn’t the time to lavish attention on prospects, well, unless they hit a grand slam in their first big-league start. Then it’s OK, I suppose.
The Cubs didn’t need Canario’s homer to win Tuesday, but it sure didn’t hurt.
They had lost eight of 10 games coming into the night, but the win helped them keep a loose grasp on the third wild card. Now they just have to win Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you get the picture.
This is how it’s going to go for the next two weeks.
It’s been a fun season, an encouraging one. Now, the Cubs just have to finish it off. That’s the hard part. It’s the fun part too.
(Photo of Alexander Canario getting doused: David Banks / USA Today)