SAN DIEGO — The Cubs on Wednesday come face-to-face not only with a past that has haunted them since January but also the specter of a future that looks just as potentially chilling depending on how they take care of business the next few weeks.
At the very least, their first look at former teammate Yu Darvish on the mound against them since the ownership-driven, salary-dump trade to the Padres is a power-pitching, spin-doctor reminder of a guy they might now have to get through in October if they do what they hope to do this season.
“For sure,” Cubs manager David Ross said before Tuesday’s 7-1 Cubs victory that makes the Darvish-Jake Arrieta game the difference between salvaging a series win on a losing road trip or sliding to 2-5 the past week against two contenders the front office is measuring its roster against before making its buy-or-sell trade deadline decisions.
“I think in general this whole stretch,” Ross added. “This is a good litmus test.”
The Cubs have looked good so far against the Padres, Dodgers and NL East-leading Mets, not so good so far against the NL West-leading Giants and NL Central-leading Brewers.
“It’s a good test for us to continue to see where our weaknesses are and where we’ve got to get better," Ross said. "And it doesn’t let up.”
The rest of the month includes the Cardinals at home this weekend and series against the Dodgers and Brewers on the road.
If it looks like a make-or-break stretch for a team with clear weaknesses in its rotation but that otherwise has shown depth and resilience, Ross has a message for his front office and another one for anyone making assumptions about what that front office will do.
For Jed Hoyer, who was Theo Epstein’s longtime No. 2 before replacing his boss as team president in November: “You try to make it as hard as possible on maybe the decisions they have to make.”
And for those who want to predict how Hoyer might read the wins, losses and the trend lines come decision day based on the Epstein years?
Maybe the new boss ain’t the same as the old boss, Ross said.
Epstein said after the 2017 season that he was a week or two from selling short-term pieces at the trade deadline after his defending World Series champ reached the All-Star break two games under .500 and 5 1/2 games out of first.
“The one thing I would say about that is, ‘Guess who doesn’t work here anymore,’ all right?” Ross said. “Why don’t you give the front office a new chance with the new president. Give everybody a new shot. I’m new. Give me a new shot. Let’s give these guys a new shot under me [for] 162 [games], and under Jed.
“I’d like to think maybe we can impact things a different way,” Ross added. “I don’t know whether that can be true or not. But I think we should ask, when it comes to everybody who’s new and in a [new] role, to just give them a clean slate and see what happens.”
A 19-8 May and home sweep of the Padres last week already looks impactful — especially with a long list of regulars constantly rotating in and out of the lineup with back, hamstring, thumb and rib injuries.
They opened this West Coast trip with 11 players in the injured list, including eight who went on it in the previous three weeks. And then Joc Pederson (bruised back) and Javy Báez (thumb) exited games over the weekend with day-to-day injuries. And right-hander Adbert Alzolay — the club’s best starter — had a blister worsen during Monday’s start and landed on the IL Tuesday.
And yet the Cubs enter Wednesday a half-game out of first after spending the last nine games going 5-4 against two of the top three teams in the NL.
“There’s more depth here than I think we had [before this year],” said Ross, who has experience from recent seasons spent in the Cubs’ front office to draw on these days when he anticipates the deadline.
“We’re showing this could be a real team that could last the journey,” he said — whatever anybody else might see in specific losses against specific opponents at different spots on the calendar, he said.
“If it paints that picture as you’re moving toward the end, then great,” he added. “And if [the execs] see that, then great. If not, then that’s what we’ve got to do. Our job here is to control what we can control.”
If the Cubs can stay this competitive into the middle of next month, even without necessarily a May-like surge in June, Ross seems to like his chances of keeping the group together and driving it toward the stretch run.
“I know we want to worry about that trade deadline” he said. “But I don’t think any of our guys are worried about that.
“I think these guys are in a good place.”