After seeing Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Cubs believe they can beat the best.
The Los Angeles Dodgers rolled out Cy Young Award winners on back-to-back nights at Wrigley Field and a $270 million team still finds itself at 0-2 in this four-game statement series.
The atmosphere felt different on Tuesday night and the Cubs certainly looked legit, celebrating a 1-0 walk-off victory after Chris Denorfia’s sacrifice fly in the 10th inning, again showing this team won’t fade away.
It left the Cubs at nine games over .500 – for the first time since August 2009 – with a 39-30 record that’s better than all but two teams in the National League (though the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates also happen to play in their division).
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“We all know we have talent,” said Anthony Rizzo, the 25-year-old All-Star first baseman. “As a team, we keep getting better. We’re really not even close to what we can really do.”
That’s the part that will make Cubs fans delirious and could embolden Theo Epstein’s front office at the trade deadline, the idea that this team is just scratching the surface of its potential.
The Cubs talked a big game heading into this season – just like any team that’s declared a winner at the winter meetings – but there’s a growing sense inside the clubhouse that this group can live up to the hype.
The Cubs lead the majors with nine walk-off wins. They’re 8-3 in extra-inning games and 18-12 in one-run games. They play with nerve and confidence.
“When we get to the eighth or ninth inning, everyone in (the dugout) is just like: This is what we do,” Rizzo said. “We just have a good vibe at all times. And it’s a lot of fun, because we’re all still growing up for the most part.”
The Cubs got contributions from all over, with Mike Baxter and Matt Szczur hitting back-to-back singles to lead off the 10th inning and Dexter Fowler coming off the bench with a sprained left ankle to work a walk and load the bases.
“It’s awesome,” Fowler said. “We got a tight-knit team. It’s awesome to win together. We’re gonna win together and we’re gonna lose together, but we don’t get too down when we lose, and we definitely think we can win each and every game.”
Jason Hammel – the sign-and-flip guy who’s become a core piece – walked off the mound in the eighth inning to a standing ovation from the crowd of 36,799. Hammel outlasted Greinke, the All-Star right-hander who now has a 1.70 ERA but needed to throw 111 pitches just to make it through six innings against this lineup.
“It’s a learning experience,” Hammel said, “especially for the young guys. There are plenty of guys on this team that have done it before. But for these young guys, they’re learning how to continue to grind out professional at-bats. We need to make sure that every out, every pitch, every at-bat counts. Especially when you get deep into September and then October, everything counts.”
The Cubs are realistically thinking about the playoffs after five consecutive fifth-place finishes.
Hammel played for Joe Maddon and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that did the worst-to-first turnaround and made it to the World Series. Hammel also pitched for the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that won 93 games after finishing in last place the year before.
Hammel thinks this is the best collection of young talent he’s ever been around. Maybe the Cubs will see Kershaw and Greinke again.
“Kudos to the front office for continuing to go through the draft and pick out great players,” Hammel said. “Obviously, when you’re bad for so long, you get the cream of the crop.
“But it’s the development part – the guys are really doing a good job. And I think it also says a lot about the leadership here, too, to take young guys and make sure they do have that good head on their shoulders when they get here and they’re not expected to take the world by the horns.
“They’re going to be together for a long time, so the sky’s the limit for this team.”