The signs of life the Cubs’ lineup showed Friday night against Dylan Cease’s youthful fastball (and Yolmer Sánchez’s toddler one) arrived just in time to shed any recently arising doubt over closing out their division title.
But they’ll need a lot more than that to maintain a pulse during a postseason that starts Wednesday.
They’ll need Kris Bryant.
Yeah, we know. He’s working through an oblique injury, and he’s hitting .195 this season.
And the haters have piled on enough in recent days and weeks to make you wonder if their beloved 2016 MVP had suddenly morphed into some combination Ed Lynch, Steve Bartman and Ryan Braun during an injury-hampered COVID-19 season.
But if it’s true that the Cubs have needed him all season in the top part of the order — and it is — then it’s never been more true now.
Until Kyle Schwarber’s first home run since Sept. 1 started the Cubs’ five-homer, 10-0 rout against the White Sox, they had gone 18 consecutive innings, 17 of those against the MLB-worst Pirates — their fourth scoreless streak of at least 17 innings in the last 2 1/2 weeks.
And whether or not Friday was the exception that proves the rule, this is a group that could use a shot of something stronger than pain-killers or 90-proof to keep the party going in October.
The mere presence of a healthy Bryant back in the No. 2 spot in the order — even if his timing and swing aren’t all there yet — is a pitch-eating, playoff-experienced boost they could use in a big way.
“I think it’s important to be able to stick a former MVP in your lineup,” said manager David Ross said, who joined the Cubs as a free agent catcher in 2015, the year Bryant debuted. “It carries a lot of weight. No matter what their numbers are, there’s a presence there. There’s a confidence there from our sides. There’s a fear from the other side.”
Ross compared it to the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, another former MVP having a down year (.205) during the pandemic-abbreviated season, and the respect his mere presence commands.
“You understand what is capable at any moment,” said Ross, who watched Yelich hit a three-run homer, for instance, in the sixth inning of a 4-3 Brewers win over the Cubs last month. “Kris carries that same weight for me.”
That’s one reason Ross backed off some of the optimism he’d expressed this week about seeing Bryant back in the lineup before the end of the weekend — even on a Friday that Bryant took pain-free swings and seemed on a short-term timeline for a return.
“I need Kris to be healthy before I can make any decisions,” said Ross, whose third baseman wants at-bats before playoff time.
Whether he gets them by the end of Sunday’s season finale, the more important outcome for the Cubs is that he’s available Wednesday.
And even beyond the presence at the plate, with Anthony Rizzo behind him, he brings an even stronger presence at third. And he’s the team’s best base runner.
The numbers look awful. And Bryant’s oblique is just the latest of a series of ailments that have derailed his season.
But several Cubs, from Ross to Javy Báez, have cited the reset button presented by October.
“In the playoffs it’s a different feeling,” Báez said. “It’s just different.”
Few playing today know that difference better than Báez. And Rizzo and Jon Lester and Willson Contreras and Kyle Hendricks and Jason Heyward.
And if he can get back by Wednesday, that might be a bigger difference than many think.
“It would definitely carry a lot of weight for us,” Ross said.