PITTSBURGH – The Cubs noticed the way Russell Martin helped change the culture around the Pittsburgh Pirates and targeted the free-agent catcher for his clubhouse presence, pitch-framing feel and take-charge style with a pitching staff.
When the Toronto Blue Jays outbid the Cubs last November – locking up Martin with a five-year, $82 million contract – it sort of created a here-we-go-again feeling for another lost offseason.
But the Cubs didn’t build an all-or-nothing team or ignore the weakened infrastructure that couldn’t withstand a 162-game season.
“We can win it all,” catcher Miguel Montero said.
The Cubs looked like legitimate contenders in beating the Pirates three times in roughly 50 hours and winning this four-game showdown series.
When the Cubs open a 10-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday afternoon, their magic number will be nine, and Wrigley Field might not go dark in October.
“In the playoffs, it’s whoever gets hot at the right time and anything can happen,” Montero said, “so I like my chances with (Jon) Lester and (Jake) Arrieta. It’s random, (but) I still like my chances with my team. That’s it. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about anything else.
“I believe in my team. And I believe we can do something special. You just got to prove it.”
After losing the Martin sweepstakes, Plan B became acquiring Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for two low-level pitching prospects and taking on the three years and $40 million left on his contract.
Personal catcher David Ross became the $5 million insurance policy to Lester’s $155 million megadeal and a glue guy in the clubhouse.
Kyle Schwarber never stopped hitting from the moment the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, bashing his way from Indiana University through five minor-league affiliates and into a pennant race.
The Cubs seemingly went from having not enough catchers to having too many catchers (with Welington Castillo getting traded away and Willson Contreras becoming a Double-A batting champion).
Montero didn’t think he would be in different three-catcher rotations at various points of the season or plan on spraining his thumb right before the All-Star break.
But Starlin Castro also doesn’t see a part-time second baseman when he looks in the mirror. And Chris Coghlan doesn’t want to go on vacation against left-handed pitchers.
The Cubs could go 5-11 the rest of the way and still finish with 90 wins because of their diverse portfolio and a star manager in Joe Maddon who has the juice to make it all work.
“I would like to play every day, too,” Montero said. “But you know what, we can’t control that. It’s been a long year. There (has) been a lot of ups and downs mentally and physically. You got to go over those humps. When you’re winning…you can’t say much.
“You can’t be really mad about it because we’re winning. That’s what we’re looking for – winning. At this point, anything we can do to contribute to help the team to win. We’re all on board.
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“Would I like to play? Yeah, everybody wants to play, of course. If there are guys here (who) don’t want to play, might as well just pack it up and go home.”
To close out the final six innings in Thursday’s 9-6 win over the Pirates, the Cubs used a guy who escaped from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate (Clayton Richard), a workhorse reliever (Justin Grimm) and a one-time All-Star starter (Travis Wood).
Montero contributed with a hit, a walk and two runs scored. He’s added some thump to this lineup (15 homers, 50 RBI and a .766 OPS), caught Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and brought an edge to the clubhouse.
Montero isn’t for everyone – he probably needed a change of scenery and wouldn’t have been an ideal fit for that rebuilding situation in Arizona – but he has helped change a losing environment.
Montero’s messages went viral on Twitter and inspired the “We Are Good” T-shirts you see on TV and around the clubhouse.
“I don’t want people to get down on us,” Montero said. “I don’t want my teammates to get down on us. You’re going to go through tough times.
“You’re not going to be great every day. But as long as you believe that you’re a good player – and you know you can do it – that’s all that matters. It’s about confidence. It’s about belief in your abilities and let it play.”