Coming off the exciting series win over the rival Milwaukee Brewers thanks to the heroics of Jason Heyward and Alec Mills, the Cubs seemed primed for a letdown. When Jeremy Jeffress blew the save in game one, it seemed like the stage was set for the Cubs to go back to their mediocre play that has marred the second half of this strange 2020 season. Still, this resurgent squad showed up, and the end result of the two-game series was a sweep (and a season series sweep to boot). Here are three key takeaways from this pivotal two-game set.
The Spark is Back
This is, of course, an unquantifiable takeaway. Both games of the series could have gone either way. The Cubs could have easily walked away on the wrong end of the sweep, but they didn’t. The eye test (as infallible as ever) tells me that the Cubs have that extra something, that “it” factor again.
There were plenty of “hang your head” moments in the series. Jeffress blowing the save in game one and Ian Happ and Kris Bryant striking out with runners on second and third, nobody out in the 7th in game two come to mind. But the team showed a remarkable lack of “quit.”
In a sport where a team plays nearly every day, momentum and confidence can play a critical role in a team’s success. There’s no question that the Cubs came out of the weekend series feeling pretty good about themselves. Though I didn’t have the sound up for most of the series, I would guess that much to Trevor Bauer’s eternal chagrin, there was plenty of “chirping” coming from the Cubs dugout. The confidence and sense of energy were readily apparent. There was little “head hanging” when the above mentioned moments happened. Instead, the “next man up” philosophy was on full display.
Clutch is King
Though I don’t have hard evidence to support this, it seems as though when things are going poorly for the Cubs, particularly on offense, every hitter comes to the plate trying to hit the three-run homer regardless of whether or not anyone is on base. In short, everyone is trying to be the hero. Don’t get me wrong, heroes are much needed and appreciated. But as much as everyone will forever remember that epic three-run homer by Heyward off Josh Hader, it would have been merely a minor footnote were it not for Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez lacing singles to start the frame.
What I’m trying to get at here is that clutch does not apply only to the home run. Sometimes being a hero means setting the table. Let’s look at the ninth-inning rally in game one.
Jeffress blew the save in the top half of the inning, a moment that could have taken the wind out of the proverbial sails. Instead, the “next man up” mentality was on full display. Kris Bryant worked a walk, then went first-to-third on Rizzo’s single. Though it is easy for Cubs fans to take Bryant’s brilliant baserunning for granted, it is precisely things like this that are what I am talking about. There are likely stars in the league who would ease up and not risk potential injury to hustle on the bases like Bryant does, always running as though his hair is on fire. By reaching third with one out, he unquestionably placed enormous pressure on Indians pitcher Oliver Perez to make the perfect pitch. Instead, he hit Willson Contreras and Cameron Maybin to give the Cubs the win. The clutch moment in this one belongs every bit as much to Bryant for going first to third as it does Maybin for taking one for the team.
Similarly, in game two, Baez will be remembered as the hero for lacing a 0-2 pitch outside the zone for the walk-off single, but lost in the shuffle was the yeoman’s work Jason Adam did in the top of the inning. The drama created by MLB’s new extra-inning rule created a situation where he entered already in a precarious position. After walking the first batter, he threw high to third on a bunt attempt, but Bryant saved the day (again) with a great play to record the out. He then got Cesar Hernandez to pop up before striking out the Indians best hitter in Francisco Lindor to end the threat. Anytime a pitcher pitches a scoreless frame in extras is a big win, but striking out Lindor in that situation was the definition of clutch.
Signs of Life
Much has been written about how badly the core has struggled; however, this series showed a lot of promise. Consider the following stat lines from the series:
- Ian Happ: 3 for 10, 2 R
- Kris Bryant: 2 for 7, 3 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB
- Anthony Rizzo: 4 for 7, 1 RBI, 2 BB
- Willson Contreras: 2 for 7, 1 RBI, 1 HBP
- Javy Baez: 3 for 8, 3 R, 2 RBI
While not all of the stat lines may knock your socks off, they show a marked improvement. (Yes, Happ has been the team MVP all season, but he had been scuffling a bit of late). I firmly believe that any and all October success will start with this group producing.
The Cubs get their last off-day before hosting the Minnesota Twins for their final homestead of the season. Interestingly, Cubs and Sox fans will find themselves cheering for their cross-town rivals this weekend. Both teams play their counterpart’s second-place challengers as the Sox travel to Cincinnati to take on the Reds. Both Chicago teams have a chance to give the city a very happy weekend if they continue their winning ways.
Featured Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images
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