Stop asking if the Cubs are back.
That’s been a season-long talking point every time something that seems big at the time happens, constant wonder over what can snap the Cubs out of it and get them back to their expected place of dominating the division and looking like a World Series contender.
But it’s been pretty plain up to this point that one game hasn’t made that drastic difference fans are looking for.
All those “Cubs back?” inquiries have only been met with the same kind of play that’s kept the team middling all season. Flashes of brilliance have come and gone, and still the Cubs turned in a sub-.500 first half and remain just a few games ahead of their division rivals from Milwaukee and St. Louis.
So it’s time to stop wondering if every big win will lead to the Cubs turning on the jets and blasting away from the Brewers and Cardinals.
If the Cubs are going to get the kind of momentum required to do that, they’re going to need to make it themselves. Just like they did Sunday.
The Cubs beat the visiting Toronto Blue Jays and completed their first three-game series sweep in a month, their first since that six-game win streak out of the All-Star break with back-to-back broom breakouts in Baltimore and Atlanta. (For those appreciative of technicalities, yes, the Cubs won both games in the road half of the Crosstown matchup with the White Sox.)
But it was the way they did it Sunday, coughing up a 3-0 lead, coughing up two runs in the top of 10th, only to score three times in the bottom of that extra inning, winning on a walk-off base hit by one of the new guys, Alex Avila.
Did it mean that the Cubs are back? Did it mean this is the start of something great? What did it mean?
“That we’re a good team, I guess,” Avila said. “There are certain times over the course of the year when you’re a team that’s trying to get to the playoffs, you’ve got to win crazy games like that, games you should win.
“For me, momentum depends on the next guy that’s pitching, to be honest with you. If (John Lackey) goes out Tuesday and throws a good game and gives us an opportunity, then you can say that. But for me, once the game’s over it’s over, and the next game is something completely different.”
Sunday’s game was far from pretty. The Cubs benefitted from a pair of dropped third strikes in that 10th inning, including one where Blue Jays catcher Raffy Lopez plum forgot to throw to first, allowing Javy Baez to reach. Baez scored the game-winning run two batters later, sliding in ahead of the throw on Avila’s hit.
This time last year, the Cubs had a double-digit lead in the National League Central standings. After this sweep, you still need just one hand’s worth of fingers to add up their current division lead. This clearly isn’t last year. But Sunday’s win did have a little bit of that 2016 feel to it.
“The way the boys grinded at the end was awesome, definitely reminiscent of last year somewhat” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “That’s where we’ve got to get to, we’ve just got to be who we are right now. And hopefully that’s the team we can be now, maybe even progress beyond that. But yeah that was huge. Kept on fighting, even late in that game, and found a way to win that one.”
That’s not to say, though, that 2017’s problems didn’t pop up. The Cubs were just 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position. They gathered just four hits the remainder of the game after Albert Almora Jr.’s bases-clearing double with nobody out in the third inning. The bullpen could hardly be described as lock-down, with Justin Wilson adding two more walks to his struggle of a portfolio since joining the Cubs, Wade Davis also walking two batters and Koji Uehara charged with the two runs in the 10th that put the Blue Jays on top.
But listen to Joe Maddon and look elsewhere.
Those “little things” that everyone is always so fond of telling you make the difference in championship seasons? They were there Sunday, chiefly in the form of Baez’s 10th-inning hustle, which first got him to first base on that dropped third strike and later allowed him to score from second on the game-winning base knock.
“Javy runs hard,” Maddon said. “For those who ever want to criticize this guy, that’s a ball in the dirt, about 15 feet away from the catcher, the catcher just blanked out on it. If Javy does not run hard right there, it’s a different result. He ran hard, and that’s why he was safe because by the time Lopez figured it out, he had already beaten it to first base.
“All those little diminutae like that, that’s the difference between winning and losing. Everybody’s going to look at Alex’s hit. Great. It was a big moment. But Javy striking out and not just sulking, runs to first base.
“This is the nuance of the game,” Maddon continued, moving on to the lead Baez got at second base ahead of Avila’s hit. “Guys that get good (secondary leads). The way I’ve always described that in spring training when you have your base-running meeting is that you’re being a great teammates when you get a good secondary lead because it leads to moments like that. … You’re being a great teammate when you understand the importance of getting good secondary leads.”
Maybe the spark that’s been so intensely looked for all season isn’t one singular highlight-reel win but a collection of plays over the course of a few games. All three of these wins against the Blue Jays were one-run victories. Little things make the difference in such tight games. They make the difference in such tight division races, too.
One game and one sweep against a last-place team gets the Cubs nowhere close to out of the woods. A playoff spot is hardly a certainty in such a closely contested Central. And for as potentially momentum-building as this weekend series might have seemed, remember the Blue Jays are a last-place team. The Cincinnati Reds, both the team the Cubs played prior to the Blue Jays and the team they’ll play next, and the Philadelphia Phillies, the second stop on next week’s road trip, are also last-place teams.
The Cubs should be winning these games. You could just as easily argue that Sunday’s game was a troubling sign. Why should the Cubs need two dropped third strikes in the 10th inning to get them a win against a last-place team? Valid question.
But if you heard the racket coming out of the Cubs’ celebration room, you might be convinced otherwise.
Is momentum real? To this point, it hasn’t been for the 2017 Cubs. But with the schedule at an easy point, maybe it becomes real soon. They just have to make it.
“We want to get on a good roll,” Almora said. “This series is great, it’s a great start. We’ve been playing well since the All-Star break, so we feel really good as a team. Pitchers coming together, offense coming together. It’s great.”
“A really good team, once you’ve won the series with one left, c’mon. This is when you really want to make some hay at that point, you just don’t want to concede anything,” Maddon said. “Getting three out of three makes a difference moving forward.”