ST. LOUIS — Kris Bryant was indeed available off the bench for the Cubs Thursday night, emerging from the bowels of Busch Stadium for the first time since Tuesday to pinch hit in the eighth inning against the Cardinals.
“I’m not lying this time,” Cubs manager David Ross said with a laugh before the game.
Whether it was mere coincidence that this rare-of-late Bryant sighting came less than three hours after the Rays spent two well-regarded Triple-A pitching prospects on acquiring All-Star hitter Nelson Cruz from the Twins, Bryant was whisked back to his dugout bubble wrap immediately after drawing a walk.
One potential suitor already landed its trade-deadline bat from another seller. No way the Cubs were risking leaving Bryant on the bases, with just a week left to next Friday’s deadline.
Not with that “hamstring fatigue” or “heavy legs” or whatever they’re calling his mysterious ailment by tomorrow.
Ross said he expects Bryant back in the lineup Friday when the Cubs open a seven-game homestand at 1:20 p.m. against the Diamondbacks.
Will he do enough to compel the Mets to get aggressive for an All-Star hitter more aggressively than they appear willing to do right now as they focus more on pitching? Will the Nationals —winners of three of their last four — decide it’s time to buy if they have another big series against the Orioles this weekend and try to add to their stable of ex-Cubs? And what about the Phillies, Padres, Blue Jays or — God forbid — the White Sox?
And then what about Javy Báez and the struggling Anthony Rizzo? Or any of the short-time, trade-chip pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin, Zach Davies and Ryan Tepera?
As the Cubs head home from a 3-4 road trip out of the All-Star break — including losses in four of their last five — the reality has sunk in as deep as the Cubs have mired themselves in the depths of the NL Central.
These could be the last seven days — or fewer — at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform for some very big names who, in some cases, have done some very big things in franchise history.
Asked in St. Louis if he thinks he will still be a Cub on Aug. 1, Báez said, “Um, yeah, I believe so.”
He didn’t sound convinced as he said the words with a sheepish grin.
“I wish I could say 100-percent yes, but I don’t control that,” he said. “So we’ll see.”
Whether the weight of the suddenly imminent end of this Cubs era is behind Rizzo’s weeks-long slump or Báez’s three errors in the first two games of the series in St. Louis, the anticipation of the next roster shoe to fall has been palpable since Joc Pederson was traded to the Braves on the eve of the second-half opener.
Báez has some reason to believe the Cubs have an interest in trying to keep him around, having discussed extension possibilities in recent years and with the likelihood they’ll re-engage before he becomes a free agent in October — although he told NBC Sports Chicago he had no knowledge of talks at this point.
Rizzo — who has been mentioned in public speculation as a fit for his original organization in Boston — seems to have a strong chance, too, of sticking past the deadline, in part because of the slump but also because of an apparent mutual interest on an extension for him, before his October free agency.
But Bryant looks more like a blockbuster trade candidate with each passing day — certainly with each day the bubble wrap holds.
And it’s only a matter of time for most of the pitchers this week — with rookies like Justin Steele stretching out in the minors for a chance to slot into the August rotation. Steele makes his third start for Triple-A Iowa on Saturday after pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his first two.
“We’re just bracing for tomorrow,” Cubs outfielder Jake Marisnick said when asked about the thoughts and conversation in the clubhouse as the deadline approaches, emphasizing the common refrain from the group that the focus remains on the work and trying to win games.
“We can’t control it,” said Marisnick — who might also be a desirable addition for a contender in the next week.
Ross, who played 15 years in the majors for seven teams, said he hasn’t seen any issues he attributes to the nearing trade deadline distracting any players in a way that needs to be addressed.
But he is ready for this trade period to be over next week.
“This is my first year going through it,” he said. “I am looking forward to that, just because I don’t have to answer any more questions [at that point]. There’s a sense of moving forward. Whatever it is, those are things that are out of our control.
“So once we get to that point, we’ve moved past [the departures] — we couldn’t affect those anyway.”