MILWAUKEE – The Cubs began the dog days of August only one game out of a playoff spot.
Cole Hamels or David Price didn’t walk through the doors of the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park, but at least the Cubs didn’t feel the same emotional letdown at the trade deadline. Those fire sales and all the roster churning could leave you looking around the room wondering: Wait, who’s that guy?
The Cubs can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel now, assuming a young group that can play down to bad teams maintains focus and doesn’t slam into the rookie wall.
“This is the tough month to get through,” manager Joe Maddon said before Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “You got to show up every day and play. Everybody gets a little bit fatigued, mentally and physically.”
If the Cubs needed a boost, there was a sellout crowd and Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza on the mound. It also looks like Anthony Rizzo is heating up again, ready to carry the offense on his shoulders.
Rizzo blasted Garza’s 94 mph fastball out to right field in the third inning, a towering three-run homer that landed in the second deck. That shot gave Rizzo four home runs in his last four games – a four-game winning streak for the Cubs (56-47) – after the All-Star first baseman hit zero bombs between July 8 and July 28.
“I’ve been looking forward to August all year,” Rizzo said. “We’re home for a long time. It’s hot in Chicago. We know what can happen at Wrigley when it warms up. I’ve been saying that all along to everyone: We’re going to have a big August.”
Five pitches after Rizzo’s homer, Garza – an ex-Cub flipped during one of those deadline deals – hit Kris Bryant, drilling the All-Star around his elbow pad.
“Garza’s not a headhunter,” said Maddon, who managed him on Tampa Bay’s 2008 World Series team. “That’s not his DNA. That’s how I knew him with the Rays. He was not the kind of guy that’s going to try to hit somebody. I think he was trying to pitch him inside.
“I really believe you know when something’s intentional or not. For us, nothing was intentional.”
A TV camera still caught Bryant smiling when Kyle Hendricks hit Ryan Braun with a 1-2 pitch just below the left shoulder while leading off the fourth inning. Braun wound up scoring the only run against Hendricks (5-5, 3.67 ERA), a young pitcher with pinpoint control acquired during one of those deadline deals.
Hendricks pitched into the eighth inning and walked off the mound to cheers from the Cubs fans standing on their feet in Milwaukee.
“We’re definitely confident,” Hendricks said. “The lineup’s coming around, guys are swinging it now. We’re keeping the runs off the board. The bullpen’s doing an unbelievable job.
“We feel really confident right now against whoever we play. Just got to keep that rolling through August and September.”
[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]
Beginning Monday, the Cubs will get seven games in seven days against the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, the two National League teams ahead of them in wild-card positions. There will be nothing routine about that, no going through the motions.
“Once you get to September, if you’re in that hunt, you find the energy every day,” Maddon said. “It just shows up. The weather starts to break. It gets a little bit cooler. Plus, the idea that (you) know that you’re right there and you have this opportunity.
“Energy just happens. So this is the month that you have to manufacture it a little bit. That’s the big push for us.”