The Cubs are about to find out what this team’s made of
As Kyle Hendricks warmed up on the mound ahead of the 4th inning Monday, his alternate walk-out song started playing over the Wrigley Field speakers.
“I’m alright…nobody worry ’bout me,” Kenny Loggins’ voice sang out in what might as well have been some kind of message to Cubs fans within earshot.
The Cubs offense had just given Hendricks a 2-0 lead and after the right-hander allowed a leadoff single, Kris Bryant and Javy Báez turned a nifty double play to erase the baserunner.
Monday’s 5-1 win obviously doesn’t absolve the team of inconsistent results over the past three weeks, but it’s certainly a step closer to the “I’m alright” territory for the the team.
It was a complete victory for the Cubs and looked a lot more like their championship brand of baseball that they’ve been striving for lately.
“Those are the kind of games that we want to play going forward,” Hendricks said. “Those are the kinds of games we were playing early in the year. So that’s our focus. It’s every single day we come in here, it’s guys putting together great at-bats — just like they did — playing great defense. Those are the keys for us. And then on the mound, being aggressive. If we can set the tone there, usually things work out pretty well.”
There are still valid concerns and questions about this team, but they halted a three-game losing streak and closed out their season series with the Cardinals in the win column.
The Cubs now hold a 2.5-game lead in the NL Central and the Cardinals have a brutal schedule down the stretch with 25 games in the final 20 days of the season (including six doubleheaders).
“The goal is to continue to get better every day,” manager David Ross said over the weekend. “The goal is to continue to play championship-caliber baseball every day. I think that’s what we haven’t really done lately. You’ve seen spurts of it — it’s coming and going, but the consistency in that hasn’t been there.
“Obviously it has to do with some injuries on the pitching staff and obviously we can get better in the bullpen and we can get better on the bases and we can get better on defense or we’ve got to hit better. There’s so many things we have to improve on, so my message is to continue to come to work every day and try to get better.
“The standings are what they are. We set ourselves up to be in that situation by the great start, the way these guys worked in the downtime. I told [the media] how proud I was of that and it’s really shown and we’ve just got to continue to keep the mindset of we’re trying to be the best version that we can be as we enter the postseason.”
After jumping out to a 13-3 start, the Cubs have gone just 12-15 since, including Monday afternoon’s win. Yet they’ve never lost their grip on first place in that time.
“No one here will say we’re clicking on all cylinders or playing our best baseball,” Jason Kipnis said. “I think it’s the sign of a good team to be able to at least tread water in first place — not many people can say they’re doing that.
“So we’re hoping our best baseball’s still in front of us. We’ve got some time to figure it out — the good start’s afforded us that luxury. But I think if we had our choice, we’d start playing [our best baseball] now and into the playoffs.”
It was just one day, but the Cubs are hoping Monday was the start of that.
Among the positive trends for this team right now:
— Jason Heyward’s health scare Sunday night does not appear to be serious and the team still does not have any positive COVID-19 tests, Ross said Monday.
— Bryant collected 2 hits Monday and just missed a 3rd when St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter made a diving stop in the 3rd inning. Bryant finished Sunday’s game with hits in each of his last 2 at-bats, so he now has 4 knocks in his last 7 at-bats.
— Báez turned in a 3-hit game Monday and also reached on an error by Carpenter. Two of Báez’s hits were of the infield variety, but it still helped bring his batting average over .200 (currently .205). For the Cubs offense to find success down the stretch, they need consistent production from Bryant and Báez.
— Jason Kipnis has been on fire lately. He finished August in a 3-for-31 slump (.097 AVG) with 1 extra-base hit and 1 RBI. Since the calendar flipped to September, Kipnis has gone 7-for-15 (.467 AVG) with 3 extra-base hits and 5 RBI.
— Willson Contreras has also had a nice first week of September, with a .440 AVG, .517 OBP and 7 RBI in the month (including a 2-run single and a walk Monday).
— Kyle Hendricks looked a lot more like himself Monday after struggling with his mechanics the last couple times out. He was efficient with 8 innings of 1-run ball, an encouraging sign for a Cubs team that will need to lean heavily on Hendricks and Darvish down the stretch while the rest of the pitching staff works to find their form.
Before the big five-game series with the Cardinals began this past weekend, Heyward perfectly summed up the tone and tenor around Wrigley Field as the weather turns a bit cooler, the leaves continue to change color and the MLB playoff race heats up.
“It feels like September,” Heyward said. “That’s something I say with excitement. Fortunately in my career, I’ve been able to play a lot of winning baseball and September’s been a big month.
“It’s [where] you learn about your teammates, you learn about your club and you get to see where things are gonna stand and shake out heading into October.”
With less than three weeks remaining on the schedule, the Cubs are about to find out exactly where they stand as a team.