The Cubs may not have proved themselves to be playoff contenders yet, not with a team four games over .500 that’s still prone to mistakes.
But in playing close games against established contenders in Washington and Kansas City over the last week at Wrigley Field, they’ve proved something else — at least to themselves.
“Listen man, you have to love the fight,” manager Joe Maddon said after David Ross’ 11th inning walk-off bloop single earned the Cubs a 2-1 win over Kansas City Sunday. “If you’re standing or sitting in the captain’s chair and you have a bunch of guys who can fight like that, what else could you possibly want? We’re not going to be perfect every night, we’re going to mistakes, of course we are. But if you have that kind of fight, I’ll take it.”
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The Cubs won two of those five games against the Nationals and Royals, but weren’t blown out in any of them. A 3-0 loss on May 27 to Washington was largely the doing of Max Scherzer’s mastery, while a four-run loss to Kansas City on Friday was close until Dexter Fowler misjudged a soft line drive in the eighth. And even in that loss Friday, the Cubs battled back from an early deficit and tied things up when Addison Russell homered off lights-out Royals righty Kelvin Herrera.
Maddon characterized the homestead as “not bad,” and it’s worth repeating the Cubs still lost more games than they won on it. But through two months, the Cubs have already played in 24 one-run games, more than any team in baseball.
And in those games, despite an often-suspect defense and inconsistent bullpen, the Cubs are 14-10. That’s helped grow the kind of mentality that the club hopes pays off as the pressure builds over the summer.
“Everyone’s believing more,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s nice. We stayed afloat through April and May, and now we can really take off and that’s what we want to do.”
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On Sunday, the Cubs fell behind 1-0 and had to find a way to scratch across a run as Yordano Ventura’s 100 mile per hour fastball and electric arsenal of offspeed pitches cleaved through the batting order. But after a seemingly-innocuous one-out walk and a wild pitch in the seventh, Chris Coghlan — who had three of the Cubs’ four hits off Ventura — laced a game-tying single to left.
The Cubs were poised to break through in the ninth inning off Royals reliever Wade Davis, who hadn’t allowed a run all season. But with runners on the corners and one out, David Ross was unable to successfully lay down a safety squeeze, instead bunting into an out at first and ultimately stranding Rizzo at third as the game careened into extra innings.
But Ross came back in the 11th and blooped a Jason Frasor changeup between left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar in left for a walk-off single.
“Luckily I drove that ball in the gap right there at the end,” Ross smiled.
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“… This was a tough homestand as far as playing really good competition and I thought we were in every game,” he said. “We believe we have a good team here, guys have a lot of confidence and they don’t give up. That’s the one thing about this team that has been really great to see these guys compete night in and night out.”
While Maddon said after the Cubs’ loss Friday his team wasn’t ready to compete for a World Series — as the Royals did in 2014 — he has seen the kind of signs from his players that make him believe they could get to that point this season. The Cubs aren’t where they need to be in terms of the concepts Maddon wants them to have nailed down, but what he sees his team have team has is that nebulous fighting spirit that any playoff contender ultimately needs.
“Once you get that engrained in the fabric of your culture, all of a sudden it can become the fabric of the day,” Maddon said. “Obviously Kansas City has that, Tampa Bay had it, I believe we got it. It’s there to be nurtured. It’s right there.”