The San Francisco Giants again seem to be bringing out the best in the Cubs – or at least maybe sharpening their game and shaking them out of a World Series hangover.
This isn’t as urgent as the dramatic playoff series that ended with a champagne-and-beer celebration in the Bay Area last year. It’s too early to tell if it will be the same spark as that four-game sweep in August 2015, when the Cubs caught fire, winning 97 games and two postseason rounds and fueling a free-agent spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million.
More than 25 percent into the schedule, the 2017 team has already gone through several stops and starts without gaining a real sense of momentum.
But the Cubs looked more and more like themselves on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, hanging on for a 5-4 win in front of 35,617, validating the internal belief that this would only be a matter of time for an All-Star lineup and a rotation stocked with Cy Young Award candidates.
“You got to put your head down,” said Anthony Rizzo, who launched two home runs off Giant lefty Matt Moore, slamming balls off the video ribbon in right field and into the center-field bleachers. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go on a streak.’
“You win one game at a time. You play one game at a time. And you lift your head up, and the next thing you know, you are where you (should be).”
Kyle Hendricks is the ultimate keep-your-head-down personality in a star-studded clubhouse. He again looked like a No. 2 starter in a playoff rotation, following up Jon Lester’s complete game by limiting the Giants to two runs across seven strong innings.
Whether or not this ends up in another top-three finish in the Cy Young vote, Hendricks has posted a 1.96 ERA in his last six outings, solidifying a rotation that had been the bedrock for a championship team (but has only 19 quality starts this season).
“That was probably the strongest I felt,” Hendricks said. “We pride ourselves on going deep. More often than not, when you can go seven – or more than seven – you’re giving yourself a really good chance to win. It’s cutting down the innings for the bullpen, too, keeping them fresh. There’s a lot that plays into that.
“We’re definitely picking it up, getting our legs underneath us. You can see it from every guy, just the pitches they’re making, the life of the ball coming out of their hands.”
It’s easy to see the impact when Rizzo – who’s 10-for-27 with five homers and nine RBI so far on this eight-game homestand – generates this much force and takes pressure off his teammates.
“He really runs this lineup,” Hendricks said. “When he starts getting hot, I think everybody around him starts to (heat up).”
The Cubs needed that, because Wade Davis showed he’s not a ninth-inning cyborg when Mac Williamson won a 12-pitch at-bat and lifted a two-run homer into the right-field basket. Until that ball flew over Jason Heyward’s head, Davis hadn’t allowed an earned run through 18 appearances in a Cubs uniform – or a homer since September 2015. Davis (10-for-10 in save chances) is still the kind of dominant closer the Giants desperately needed last October.
The Cubs are now 24-21 and a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Eddie Butler will try to win the series on Thursday afternoon and show he’s a long-term answer for the rotation, going up against ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija (1-5, 4.57 ERA) and a Giant team (20-28) that’s gaining no traction in the National League West.
“The one thing that I really like about the team is we (never) lost confidence,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to just go out and expect to win. (It’s not) showing up and you’re going to win. No, we’ve got to play the game.”