CHICAGO — The Cubs were running out of things to say during their 10-game losing streak. Manager David Ross didn’t have “any magical answer”In his daily press conferences. Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations, indicated that Ross is doing well during a state-of-the-team address. “a great job,”All things considered. David Robertson, a veteran closer, insisted that everything be done within the Wrigley Field clubhouse “it’s not for a lack of effort.”Willson Contreras, All-Star Catcher, put it this way: “I don’t care about the trade deadline.”
At least it’s over now — the losing streak, not the trade rumors. Keegan Thompson matched Atlanta’s Charlie Morton on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, holding the defending World Series champs scoreless for six innings. An announced crowd of 35.676 erupted in eighth inning when Christopher Morel raised a sacrifice ball to center field and Jonathan Villar went headfirst into home plate, making it a run. Robertson completed his high-wire act by loading the bases in ninth inning. He walked two batters, and hit another before scoring the final out at 4 :01 p.m. “Go Cubs Go” blared from the ballpark’s sound system as Contreras clapped and danced his way toward the high-five line after a 1-0 victory that snapped Atlanta’s 14-game winning streak.
“We talked as a group the last couple days and it’s just not worrying about what’s being said outside the locker room,”Thompson said. “The only thing that matters is what’s going on in here. We can’t let outside noise get the best of us. Just play hard. We weren’t really worried about their winning streak or our losing streak.”
While that sounds great, the Cubs ultimately are judged on their wins and losses, even though this rebuilding season is being graded using a curve. There’s no credible way to put a positive spin on a team that’s already on pace to lose 100 games — before the inevitable exodus of major-league talent at the trade deadline. Hoyer was involved with all major decisions that were made in baseball operations during the Theo Epstein era. Ross is responsible for overseeing the major-league roster because of the drastic budget cuts made to baseball operations during the COVID-19 epidemic. A series of injuries caused 60 percent of the planned rotation to be unable to perform, leading to the domino effect that saw four losses in five days, with scores of 8-0 and 18-4, 12-5, 19-5, and 19-5.
“What streak is that? What are you talking about?”Ross laughed during his postgame media meeting. “We’ve had some ugly ones lately, but I haven’t questioned the effort or the intensity of the guys at all. Nobody’s been making excuses. There’s something about a starting pitcher going out and setting the tone. Charlie Morton was nasty today, but so was our guy. When you have that back and forth, it breeds a sense of: ‘OK, boys, this guy’s got it. Let’s do all we can to work a walk, get a bunt down, steal a base.’ A shallow sac fly gets us the win today. That could have easily gone the other way and we’d be really not in a good place if we lose that game. That’s what it’s all about — continue to fight.”
Robertson, 37 years old, is a trusted source of information because he helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. He also handled the New York spotlight. He is aware of the limitations Ross is currently facing. He threw fewer than 19 innings during his recovery from Tommy John surgery. While negotiating a $3.5 million contract for Hoyer, he was his own agent. He saw an opportunity to pitch in the later innings and remembered how much his family loved Chicago while he played for them. He is a solid candidate to be traded due to his experience (145 career saves), and his performance in recent years (1.82 ERA, 34 strikes in 24.2 innings),
“That’s above my pay grade,”Robertson said. “I don’t worry about that. I’m here to play baseball and pitch and try to get outs. If they ever make that decision, that’s their decision. I’m with these guys in the clubhouse. I’m going to try to continue to play hard and win games.”
Contreras is playing at such a high level — and is so appreciative of the chance to spend this weekend with his younger brother, William, the Braves catcher — that he won’t be venting any frustrations through the media. Some questions can become repetitive, but Contreras is patient and available at his locker. After Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez drew so much attention last season, Contreras seems to be enjoying this chance to be the clubhouse leader — for however long it lasts — and taking it seriously by setting a positive example with his energy.
Morel struck out three runs against Morton. He also missed the first two pitches of Braves reliever A.J. Minter in the eighth. Morel looked at Contreras as he was sitting in the on deck circle. Contreras cheered and nodded his head. The Cubs needed a sacrifice fly at that moment so the rookie took a deep breathe and completed the task.
“We know that we have enough talent here to start winning ballgames — that is the message that we’ve been spreading around,” Contreras said. “I don’t want to put the cameras on me because I’m saying it. I’m just trying to lift this team up because losing sucks. If you’re having a bad day, but your attitude’s right on point, you’re going to end up having a good day, like we did today. It’s not about me. It’s about the Cubs. I love this team. I love my team.”
Ian Happ isn’t an obvious trade chip at the level of Contreras or Robertson — the outfielder remains under club control next season through the arbitration system — but he made his major-league debut with the defending World Series champs in 2017. Happ was part the 2018 team that somehow won 96 games. He still considers that season to be a failure. Happ knows how Wrigley Field feels when the Cubs roll and appreciates the importance clubhouse culture.
“These guys come to work every day and do all the right things,”Happ stated. “Everybody does the right prep, goes out and gets their work in, and we’re playing really hard. That’s something that this organization, this coaching staff, has done a really good job with. So as long as we continue to do that, we’ll get through this and get to the other side of it.”
There might be only one or two players who make the rebuild and make it to the next playoff game at Wrigley. There is no timetable. “The Next Great Cubs Team,”This was a concept that seemed increasingly distant during the 10-game losing streak. The Cubs will have new options and ways to speed up the process. It just won’t feel any closer when Contreras and Robertson are playing for new teams this summer.
(Photo of Willson Contras and David Robertson: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)