In many ways, we–you and me–are the worst possible people to determine just how good the 2015 Chicago Cubs are. Â We have a long history of loving this franchise and hating this franchise and wanting to hug them and wanting to punch them and everything in between. Â It takes a special kind of delusion to continue to root for the Cubs. Â Normally sane, rational people can convince themselves against all reason that “hey, they’re not THAT bad.”
Well, gang. Â They’re not THAT bad.
They’re pretty fucking good.
For years we just wanted the parade of nitwits running this team to tear it down and build it back up, the right way. Â This franchise hadn’t made a concerted effort to do that since the ’30s. Â The 1930’s!
And then, it happened. Â Four plucky kids bought the team with their billionaire daddy’s cash. Â They did everything publicly wrong, but for the most part they picked the right fights (with the city, the state, the neighborhood, the roofies) and they lost some but they wonÂ more, andÂ they hired Theo Epstein after the 2011 season, and they came up with a convoluted, but actionable plan to rebuild and revitalize their beloved shitheap of a ballpark, and their beloved shitheap of a team.
Theo set course on gutting a pretty awful roster and piecing together a team, leaning heavily on good hitting prospects.
But you know all of this. Â You lived it. Â Some of you lived it more patiently than others, but here we are, just four years later, and over the last four days the Cubs stood toe to toe with the team they want to be…the three times in five seasons champions of the world–the team that routinely knocks the St. Louis Cardinals out of the playoffs–the San Francisco Giants…and the Cubs beat them every damned time.
Sure, it helped that the Giants world-beater starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner didn’t take a turn in the series, and that their newest starting pitching acquisition, long-time Cubs tormenter1 Mike Leake pulled a hamstring while jogging in between starts and he also missed the series.
But the standings don’t care who’s hurt and who’s turn it is to pitch. Â All the standings know is that on Friday morning the Cubs trailed the Giants by a half game in the chase for the last playoff spot in the National League, and on Sunday night the Cubs had a three and a half game lead.
The Giants know that a big series in August can come and go and be forgotten by September. Â But the Cubs, the team with four rookies in the starting lineup, the team that has now already won more games this season than they did just three years ago, needed this.
They needed 40,000-plus crazy, hyped up, screaming Cubs fans to pack the park every day. Â They needed to get a lead and keep a lead, and get a lead and lose a lead and regain a lead and then keep it. Â They needed to do it, to feel it, and to reinforce their deserved confidence. Â This is a team who gave themselves their own hashtag: #wearegood.
They ain’t lying.
They currently have the third best record in the National League, which just happens to be the third best record in their own division. Â By the end of the year they’ll have played nearly 40 games against the Cardinals and Pissburgh. Â If they get into the playoffs, they’ll be ready.
They needed it. Â And we needed it. Â You don’t root for a team to just complain about it. Â You root for them because you want to celebrate stuff. Â You want to go crazy when something good happens. Â You want them to make you feel good once and a while. Â Otherwise, what’s the point?
So why were these four games such a big deal?
Not only was it a head to head series with their closest competition for that last spot, but the calendar had turned to August and the Cubs made the kind of decisions that you make when shit gets important.
It started with Joe Maddon announcing that Starlin Castro was going to the bench to open a spot for Kyle Schwarber in left field. Â Huh?
OK, let’s walk through this.
Schwarber is just a ridiculous hitter. Â He never gives up an at bat, he hits the ball like it stole something from him and his return to the team has coincided (for a reason) with them scoring runs again.
With Miguel Montero coming off the DL, the Cubs want him to do the bulk of the catching again (his presence was huge in the ninth inning on Sunday when he guided Hector Rondon through a bases-loaded nobody out jam). Â So that means they play Schwarber in left, where so far he’s been far from terrible.
If Schwarber plays left, the Cubs have to find someplace for Chris Coghlan.2 Â Originally, the theory was that Coghlan might platoon in right field with Jorge Soler, but apparently Jorge got wind of that memo and started hitting, so that went out the window. Â Coghlan was an infielder coming up in the Marlins system, so the Cubs decided to not only get Starlin’s suddenly anemic bat out of the lineup, but also his historically clanky glove out, too, by moving Addison Russell to his long-term destiny at shortstop. Â That means playing Coghlan at second base.
It would help if Coghlan wasn’t hitting like Starlin the last two weeks. Â Do you really need to cram a guy into an out of position spot when he’s hitting .219/.265/.344 over the past 14 days?
For the first three games it looked OK, but on Sunday, Coghlan’s inability to play the position showed up pretty obviously. Â He failed to turn a routine double play, and he didn’t notice a runner stealing second (even though the guy was running right in front of him) and didn’t alert Addison, so nobody really covered the bag (Russell got there really late).
In all four games, Joe yanked Coghlan early (in either the sixth or seventh) in favor of Jonny Buckets Herrera. Â So, the strategy works if the Cubs get an early lead, otherwise you’d be faced with trying to mount a comeback with Buckets batting in the three spot when he relieves Coghlan.
The Cubs are 8-0 when Coghlan bats third. Â But not because of him. Â His OPS in the first seven games was .549, and he went 0-3 today.
It wasn’t just the lineup change that reflected Joe’s change in approach. Â He showed in the fifth inning of Thursday night’s game that he wasn’t going to be be fucking around. Â Jason Hammel was struggling and the Cubs once 5-0 lead was down to 5-2 and the Giants had two on. Â Hammel needed to get through that inning to qualify for the win. Â Joe gave zero fucks about that and brought in Justin Grimm who got out of the jam and the Cubs went on to win 5-4. Â Hammel complained to Joe about it after the game. Â Joe’s response:
On Friday, the heart of the Giants lineup was coming up in eighth, so with one out, Joe went with his closer, and Hector blew threw them and then pitched the ninth for the save. Â Somewhere, Ned Yost’s head exploded. Â “He’s not your EIGHTH inning guy!”
The message was clear. Â We’re going to do what it takes to win today’s game. Â If you have a problem with it, that’s your problem. Â The best players are playing, whoever is needed in a given spot is coming in.
It’s a very grown up way to run a baseball team. Â It’s a breath of fresh air on the north side of Chicago.
Yesterday, we got to re-live opening day 1989. Â Which, in a way, is perfect. Â If this team reminds us of any other it’s that ’89 team. Â Young players, unlikely heroes, a strong top of the rotation. Â That team came out of nowhere (and then went right back). Â While this team is certainly built to last (and that one wasn’t), the general excitement and likability around the two teams is comparable.
On that day, Mitch Williams managed to load the bases with nobody out in the ninth, and like our boy Hector, Mitch decided it was time to strike everybody out. Â Longtime intrepid reader TJ Brown found evidence of this on YouTube:
(Scrub ahead to about 36:47 for the good stuff.)
It’s emblematic of what this team has become that Hector played the memorable role yesterday. Â Earlier this season he lost his closer’s job. Â Our good friend Dave Kaplan said players around the team (including the catcher, Miguel Montero) questioned whether Hector had the balls to be an effective closer. Â Hector accepted his “demotion” was lights out pitching in the seventh or eighth and when Jason Motte’s “Here’s another fastball!” schtick wore thin, and a trade deadline deal for Craig Kimbrel didn’t materialize, Hector went back to closing. Â His balls looked pretty full yesterday.
Just 13 games ago, the Cubs season looked to be in the dumpster across the street from the firehouse. Â They had been swept by the hapless Phillies and no-hit for the first time in 50 years. Â It looked like the young team was too young, that this was a season too soon for them to compete.
But somebody forgot to tell them that. Â And since the end of that Phillies’ series, they are 11-2. Â They’ve won ten of 11 and they are a heady 14 games over .500.
Nothing’s been won yet. Â And maybe nothing will be. Â But Wrigley was at its very best this weekend. Â With the supposed “we’re only here for the sun” fans into every pitch, going crazy, giving the team standing ovations after rallies, singing happy birthday to Anthony Rizzo, and generally having one hell of a time.
Every once and a while we need a reminder of why this is fun enough that we keep coming back. Â These four days in August were just that.
There’s a long way to go. Â But is there any team you’d rather be going there with?