MIAMI – Jon Jay walked into a quiet clubhouse late Sunday morning, turned right and headed directly toward the sound system in one corner of the room, plugging his phone into the sound system and playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
The Cubs outfielder whistled as he changed into his work clothes at Marlins Park, singing along to the lyrics with Anthony Rizzo a few lockers over: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
That’s what the Cubs keep telling themselves, because most of them have World Series rings and the National League Central is such a bad division.
“The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 4-2 loss left the Cubs treading water again at 38-37. “We’re solvent. We’re right there. We’re right next to first place.”
In leaving this relaxed tropical environment after a 4-2 loss, the Cubs will jump into the deep end on Monday night for the start of a four-game showdown at Nationals Park, where Dusty Baker will stack his rotation with Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and hope Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman can outslug a bad bullpen.
Maddon already sounded doubtful about All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, who mishandled the spin on a routine Ichiro Suzuki groundball in the first inning and later exited the game with a “sharp, pinching pain” at the front of his right shoulder.
Miami sunk the Cubs with three unearned runs after Russell’s error, part of a season-long trend where the defending champs can’t seem to put it all together in every phase of the game. Martin Prado drilled Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch, 93-mph fastball off the left-center field wall for a two-out, two-run double and the Cubs will have to play sharper against the first-place Nationals (45-30).
“It could be a great test,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “It will be nice to see where we’re at against them.”
The Cubs had enough trouble against Edinson Volquez and the Miami bullpen, translating eight hits and seven walks into only two runs while leaving 11 runners on base. That wasted a quality start from Montgomery (1-4, 2.03 ERA), who lasted six innings and retired the last 10 batters he faced. More than anything, Maddon sounded disappointed in Willson Contreras missing a hit-and-run sign in the seventh inning and Ian Happ getting thrown out at second base.
“Keep The Floaties On” sounds like an idea for Maddon’s next T-shirt. The 2017 Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 or two games under .500 at any point this season. The 2016 Cubs didn’t lose their 37th game until July 19 and spent 180 days in first place.
“That’s what was so special about it,” Rizzo said. “We boat-raced from Game 1 to Game 7 with a couple bumps in the road, but this is baseball. It’s not going to be all smooth-sailing every day. You got to work through things.”
The Cubs might be working without the safety net of a wild card when the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are all on pace for close to 100 victories in the brutal NL West. For all their inconsistencies, the Cubs are still only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a division where the other three teams could become trade-deadline sellers.
“I know that, but I also know that we have not had that run yet, which I believe we have (in us),” Maddon said. “I’m waiting on us to get well. I want our young guys to (use) the whole field, hitting-wise, and see where that can take us. Right now, our starters are pitching like we thought that they could.
“I’ve always wanted to win the division, obviously. We’ll just play that out. It’s too early for me to really be concerned about that yet. We’re pitching better. We’re catching the ball better. And now all of a sudden, they’re starting to use the whole field. So let’s see where this takes us right now.”
Sink or swim, the Cubs are going into the nation’s capital, less than six months after their White House visit. The big idea will be survival more than dynasty in what could still be a playoff preview.
“We’re looking forward to play them,” Montgomery said. “We know where they’re at. We know we could see them down the line.”