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‘Go time’: David Ross is sticking with his starting core as Cubs chase down playoff berth

9 months agoAndy Martinez

David Ross admitted Cody Bellinger wasn’t at 100%.

But with 25 games left in the season and a playoff spot within reach, Ross isn’t taking any chances — he’s trying to win.

“It’s the time of year that they’re not gonna get many days off,” he said before Monday’s series opener against the Giants. “There’s no more resting. We’re gonna try to push him.

“That DH role gives us a little bit maybe not standing on your feet as much out in the outfield or at first base and running around and just be able to focus on hitting.”

The Cubs are sitting 10 games above .500 and 2.5 games back of the Brewers in the NL Central because of Bellinger and a core of position players that have weathered a wild season — one that saw them sitting 10 games below .500 and staring down another trade deadline sell-off.

Through slumps and highs, Ross has stuck with his players — when Ian Happ was scuffling a few weeks ago, he kept him anchored in the 3-spot in the lineup. When the team first acquired Jeimer Candelario and he started hot, he kept him near the bottom of the lineup to make sure everyone else was in their spot and the lineup was deep.

In September, unless a player absolutely needs it, those players are all playing — they’ve gotten the Cubs this far and they’ll see it out to the end.

“It’s go time for me,” Ross said Sunday in Cincinnati. “But right now, we’re gonna play pretty consistently the group that’s been out there and carrying us all year. I think they’re the ones that are gonna take us to where we wanna go.”

So, while there’s plenty of intriguing options on the Cubs’ bench on a given day — Christopher Morel, Patrick Wisdom, Miles Mastrobuoni, Miguel Amaya, Nick Madrigal and September call-up Alexander Canario — there’s no tinkering with the main lineup that has the Cubs chasing down their first playoff berth in 3 years.

Instead, Ross will find pockets or matchups that suit that day, the player or situation.

Sunday was a prime example.

It was the 8th inning and the Cubs had just taken a 7-5 lead and were looking to tack on more with runners at first and second and no outs. But the Reds had their All-Star closer, Alexis Díaz on the mound. With Amaya on deck, Ross turned to Mastrobuoni to try and advance the runners with a bunt.

It was an interesting choice. The lefty hadn’t played since Aug. 22 and had just one major-league plate appearance since July 28. Asking him to come in against an elite reliever and lay down a bunt was no small task. After failing to square around on two of the first three pitches he saw, Mastorbuoni tried on the fourth pitch and laid it down perfectly — and reaching first on a throwing error by Díaz.

“For Mastro, that’s a really hard guy to bunt off,” Mike Tauchman said after the game. “To come off the bench there and get a sacrifice bunt down with 2 strikes, that’s a super high-pressure situation and that can’t be — that’s so important to be able to do, to execute fundamental things like that. Huge at-bat by him.”

It illustrates the Swiss Army knife-like bench that Ross has at his disposal. Need some pop? Wisdom and his 21 homers are available. Contact? Madrigal and his 92.2% contact rate can slot in.

“Everybody has a skillset and you try to maximize that, that’s my job, as best I can,” Ross said. “What I just need them to do is trust in their skills and have confidence in themselves … If anybody knows, I know how hard the roles they get put in sometimes, but [you] gotta go do it.”

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That’s why it’s been hard for someone like Canario to have gotten into a game. His skillset in the major leagues isn’t really known and he’s been a slow starter when he reaches a level for the first time — in his first 10 games at Double-A last season he had a .163/.182/.302/17 wRC+ slash line and had a .050/.259/.050/10 wRC+ in his first 8 games at Triple-A last year. This year, albeit while returning from a major injury, he slashed .194/.256/.222/20 wRC+ in his first 8 games.

Couple that with how things have gone for the Cubs since he’s been up and there hasn’t been a soft landing for his debut. The Cubs played a trio of close games on Friday and Saturday and asking him to start or try and deliver in those situations, his first time in the majors, wouldn’t have been ideal.

Sunday, Ross could have gone to him late in the game when the Cubs had broken it open but he opted to continue to hit someone like Tauchman who was on a roll in that game after enduring a period of slumping. The Cubs know Tauchman’s importance down the stretch and any extra opportunities — especially when he’s locked in like he was Sunday — in a game setting are invaluable to him and the Cubs.

The Cubs, too, have been open about Canario’s role and have treated many young players the same way recently. Last season, Morel was called up from Double-A when the Cubs were desperate in filling out a roster spot. He took advantage of a small opportunity and ran with it. This season, Morel came up on May 9 and the Cubs were open about wanting his bat up here but were also transparent in saying there wasn’t necessarily a spot for him, much like they have said with Canario.

“He’s a very electric player that we like having around and just going to continue to try to find spots for him to help us,” Ross said at the time.

On May 12, Nico Hoerner landed on the IL, immediately opening a spot up for Morel at second base. But when Hoerner was healthy, he went back to second base and Morel became the team’s regular designated hitter until some recent struggles.

That slump from Morel (since Aug. 1, he’s hitting .148/225/.309/44 wRC+) has opened up the DH spot, allowing Bellinger to slide in there, return to full health to play premium defense and keep his bat in the lineup. That goes for the rest of the Cubs’ core that has them in the thick of a pennant chase.

“We’re gonna stick to what we’ve done really well and they know how to compete,” Ross said. “They’re winners. This is the fun part of the season. Everybody’s competing for things. Everybody’s intensity and focus [are] dialed up a little bit more.

“You gotta just come in on a daily basis and trust in your process that’s gotten you to this point. They’ve done a really nice job all season long.”

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