Whether the biggest threats to the Cubs the rest of this strange season are the Cardinals in September or the Dodgers in October, don’t sleep on the coronavirus in between — or the Reds or the end of the rotation or the work-in-progress bullpen.
Maybe that’s why the Cubs targeted José “Cafecito” Martínez and his side-gig coffee business at the trade deadline, along with those two lefties to help the bullpen.
Either way, the Cubs have put themselves in position to hold plenty of baseball’s attention down the 25-game home stretch and into October, with a first-place club, Cy Young-contending ace in Yu Darvish and history to be claimed by anyone who can exploit a short, pandemic season and a crapshoot, 16-team playoff field.
“I don’t know the right word to give you to write or quote, but I’m extremely thankful for this team and proud of this team and where we’re at right now,” said manager David Ross, whose club has a three-game lead over the Cardinals two days before opening a five-game series at Wrigley against them.
“And the adversity that this season presents and how they’ve gone about their business and continued to get better,” Ross added, “their commitment to this unique season has been very evident from my seat.”
That went a long way toward the front office’s aggressive posture in addressing its top two needs — adding lefty help for the bullpen and someone for the lineup who can reliably hit lefties — despite little in the way of player capital or cash resources to swing big.
Four trades later, Martínez and Cameron Maybin were added to the hitting roster, and lefties Andrew Chafin and Josh Osich to the bullpen — with Osich impressing in a high-leverage Cubs debut Tuesday.
“Listen, this year has been such a strange year for everybody, and our playes deserve so much credit for what they’ve gone through,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “These guys have in some cases been away from their families, and certainly they’ve been behaving as well as possible [within COVID-19 protocols] and clearly altering their lives in so many ways in order to perform and traveling and staying in hotels during a pandemic while playing exceptionally well.”
The Cubs got off to a 13-3 start, lost 10 of their next 15, then won three of their last four — with Darvish earning four of their seven wins during one 17-game stretch on the way to leading the league in ERA and wins, and sitting just six off the strikeout lead with five starts remaining.
They have yet to have a player test positive for the virus since intake testing began in June, and they’re also getting healthier at the right time after key injuries, including former MVP Kris Bryant’s return Tuesday from a wrist and finger injury and starter José Quintana’s season debut last week after a freak thumb injury delayed his start.
“We really believe in this group,” Hoyer said. “And given the sacrifices they’ve made and how well they’ve come together… this group has earned the right for us to go out and make additions.”
Now comes the hard part: continuing to avoid the virus as it becomes potentially more natural to let guards down with each week of negative testing, and finishing on the field what they started with a handful of new players to assimilate and increased urgency to perform.
Ian Happ said he’s already impressed with the “personalities and characters” of the deadline additions, as much as he is with their veteran track records and abilities.
Veteran starter Jon Lester, whose guile and trademark cutter look like start-by-start propositions at this point in his career, said after Tuesday’s extra-inning win in Pittsburgh that the front office injected “a huge boost of confidence” into the clubhouse with the trades.
“It just makes you believe you’re doing the right things, regardless of what this weird season is and what we’ve had to deal with and all that nonsense,” he said. “Anytime this happens, it’s always a good thing for us.”
Now can they make it pay off? Can Darvish finish as strong as he has started? Can the first-year manager handle the increasing heat down the stretch? Can Happ and Jason Heyward continue hit like MVP candidates and $184 million outfielders? Can Javy Báez, Willson Contreras and a healthier Bryant follow Augusts to forget with Septembers to remember? And will anybody in a Cubs uniform ever get a hit with the baseball loaded again?
“The best is still yet to come,” Ross said. “I think that’s clear.”