Winning Time: How a team meeting helped lead to the Cubs’ recent success
Ian Happ felt like the time was right to get a bunch of Cubs players together for a quick meeting.
The Cubs were in the midst of a bizarre road trip where they began in Iowa for the Field of Dreams game, had an off-day, played a pair of games in Cincinnati, traveled to Washington D.C. for a 3-game set and then had a quick stop in Baltimore for a rain makeup from earlier in the summer.
It was before Thursday’s game in Baltimore where Happ wanted to huddle up.
His message was simple: It’s time to set expectations for 2023.
The emotional roller coaster of the trade deadline had passed a couple weeks before and it was clear that the attention is on next year.
“We have a generally young group,” Happ said. “This is, post-deadline, kinda the group that’s gonna be here next year position player wise. So to be able to set the expectation for what it means to be a Cub and we have an opportunity here to determine the route that we go and how we want to play the game.
“It was just good to get everybody together and have that conversation. It’s been a nice little run.”
Happ is right — the Cubs have been on a nice little run.
Over their last 29 games (dating back to July 17), the Cubs are 18-11 with a +17 run differential. They have won five straight series, including a pair of come-from-behind victories against the contending Brewers at Wrigley Field last weekend.
“It’s just a tight-knit group,” David Ross said. “They’re all pulling the same end of the rope, to be cliche. … These guys are fighting, coming into work every day. Super proud of them.
“I think there’s a lot of guys in there that contribute to this winning and the winning environment as of late.”
Happ has been a big part of that success. He has been a consistent offensive presence all season and has found his power stroke of late, including his 100th career homer Sunday.
Willson Contreras has also been delivering of late but he is the only player of the position player group slated to become a free agent after 2022.
Nick Madrigal (.327 AVG, .411 OBP) has flashed his skillset after returning from the IL. Franmil Reyes was a big pickup a couple weeks ago on waivers and he’s done nothing but hit since joining the team (.333 AVG, .963 OPS) and is under team control for two more years. Nico Hoerner continues to do his thing at the plate while playing stellar defense.
Rookies Seiya Suzuki, Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez are adjusting to their first season in the big leagues. Patrick Wisdom leads the team in homers (22) and RBI (58) while trade deadline acquisition Zach McKinstry is working to find his footing as a utility infielder in Chicago.
Yan Gomes and P.J. Higgins have had their moments behind the plate and Higgins has also seen time at both corner infield spots.
The brief team meeting made an impact on Morel, who credited the chat with helping him deliver a game-winning homer on Friday:
“We got a meeting together to try to be like family,” Morel said in the interview with Elise Menaker. “[Happ and Contreras are] just really good people, veteran guys and [they said], ‘We support you guys. This is a team, we are family and we’re going to have fun.'”
On the pitching side, the Cubs have received consistent, quality work from the starters during the recent good stretch.
This offseason, the team will look to add to a rotation that features Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele (who is enjoying a breakout season) and Kyle Hendricks (who is not expected to pitch again this season after a shoulder injury).
Keegan Thompson has shown he can have success as either a starter or multi-inning reliever while Brandon Hughes has been a bright spot in the bullpen, Rowan Wick has had his ups and downs at the back end of the bullpen and Adrian Sampson (3.51 ERA) continues to impress in the rotation. The Cubs also have a wave of young pitchers coming up through the system (both in the rotation and bullpen).
While the postseason is not a realistic goal for the Cubs this season, the group inside the clubhouse knows how important it is to develop a winning culture now — and not simply waiting for next year.
“How we play for the rest of this season is pretty significant in creating momentum and energy into next year,” Hoerner said, “and some optimism that we are a couple pieces away from competing in our division and making a push.”
Hoerner doesn’t think that kind of mindset comes about organically and instead needs to be a topic of conversation in the clubhouse right now.
“It’s something that needs to be pushed,” he said.
Hoerner understands that the next six weeks will be important for individual players to carve out potential roles in the future but he is also adamant about the team-oriented aspect of the season’s final stretch.
Hoerner, Happ and Contreras are the only players left on the active roster who had an extended period of time with a previous regime that won a lot of games from 2015-2020.
In short: They know what winning looks like and how to get there.
“Winning is not something that you can just turn the switch on one day,” Hoerner said. “It’s a skill and it takes time and it’s more than just throwing together a roster of guys that looks like it’s gonna be a good team.
“It’s starting to create energy and bonds with the people that have won together. Then you’re in a situation you’ve been in before and you do it again, hopefully in a playoff stretch. It’s all important.
“Games are won in between moments and plays and things that take time to do multiple times. I’m looking forward to that.”