Cubs know they’re good, what’s at stake, embrace pressure of playoff race into October

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs have been in survival mode for so long, it’s the only way for them to continue to operate. Giving at-bats to Alexander Canario, a September call-up still waiting to make his major-league debut, means taking at-bats away from players the team wants to get locked in for October. Maintaining a wild-card position and gaining ground in the division race requires pushing the best pitchers to their limits.

This is what they all signed up for. It’s not a long season anymore. There are only 23 games remaining and 14 against potential playoff opponents. Even after expending so much effort and energy to prevent a sell-off at the trade deadline and go from 10 games under .500 to 10 games over .500 in the same season — which is something that has never happened before in franchise history — the Cubs still believe they have a lot left in the tank.

“We know that the pressure is on us,” Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “You want pressure. That means there’s something riding on it. We go out there every single day and we want that feeling. It’s not going to grind you down. It’s a sprint to the end. We see where we’re headed now. There’s no taking our foot off the gas or getting fatigued at all.”

“It’s working” has become the boilerplate response to all the lineup complaints and frustrations with bullpen management on X, formerly Twitter. The Cubs are 12-1-2 in their last 15 series, and with Tuesday night’s 11-8 win, they can sweep the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Cubs manager David Ross should get Obvious Shirts to make him an “If It Ain’t Broke” T-shirt to wear during his news conferences.

Or simply enjoy it when it’s 84 degrees, the wind is blowing 14 mph out to left field, Carlos Zambrano is singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” from the press box, and the announced crowd of 28,684 sounds so much louder. The Giants don’t have the same kind of pitching staff that once anchored their even-year World Series teams, but they’re still a wild-card contender. The Cubs have also pulled out enough comeback victories and won enough high-scoring games this season that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore.

Seiya Suzuki, a player Ross benched last month, received the message that he needed to be more aggressive and confident in the batter’s box. Suzuki launched Tyler Rogers’ slider toward the back of the left-field bleachers and Waveland Avenue for a two-run homer that tied the score 6-6 in the seventh inning. Suzuki is hitting .362 with 10 doubles, two triples, seven home runs and 18 RBIs in his last 25 games.

Christopher Morel, who came off the bench Tuesday, has a diminishing role and the electrifying talent to break open a game. That’s exactly what he did in that same seventh inning, crushing Luke Jackson’s pitch 431 feet toward the batter’s eye in center field for a three-run homer. Morel admired his 20th home run and took eight steps toward first base before turning and flipping his bat.

Christopher Morel crushes Luke Jackson’s pitch 431 feet toward the batter’s eye in center field for a three-run homer. (David Banks / USA Today)

Yan Gomes (3-for-4, two RBIs) is the No. 1 catcher and an unquestioned leader on the field and in the clubhouse. Nick Madrigal has gone from being a curiosity at third base or a disappointment on the injured list to contributing as a solid defender and a contact hitter at the bottom of the lineup. Jeimer Candelario has been the switch hitter and the corner infielder the Cubs needed when they pivoted at the trade deadline and acquired him from the Washington Nationals. It’s not a fluke when a team is 11 games over .500 after Labor Day, in a wild-card spot and only 2 1/2 games out of first place.

“It’s the same process,” Ross said. “I know this is boring for you guys to write about, but it’s the same process we started with — trying to get better every day. We have the same meetings. We go over the same topics every single day. We go over the strengths and weaknesses of the other team and how we feel like we can stack up against them and try to form a plan each and every series. That’s why we play this thing out 162.

“That consistency is really important and part of this process of 162. The guys that have been on winning teams (understand). It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to break a curse of 108 years or you’re going out and trying to win the ballgame that day. You have to have your process to go out there and compete to the highest level every single day. That shouldn’t change. You adjust that to help yourself, but it doesn’t change because of the team on the other side.”

Hendricks, who knows what it takes to pitch into November, almost kept it together for one of those games in which he settles into a groove after a shaky first inning and avoids major damage. LaMonte Wade Jr. hammered Hendricks’ first pitch of the game for a leadoff home run. The Giants scored an unearned run in the second inning off a two-out bloop single into shallow left field. Mike Yastrzemski hit a basket home run in the third inning. Hayden Wesneski, a reliever trying to earn a spot in Ross’ circle of trust, couldn’t keep it a 4-4 game in the sixth inning and promptly gave up a two-run homer to J.D. Davis.

It didn’t matter because the Cubs have a more well-rounded offense than the all-or-nothing group that became too predictable in recent years. The Cubs have so much homegrown pitching in their rotation that Justin Steele’s Cy Young Award campaign suddenly doesn’t feel like an anomaly when Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks are already so composed on the mound. The Cubs have enough pitching depth to think that Marcus Stroman doesn’t need to be fully stretched out as a starter if he comes back from his mysterious injury.

This team also gets the bounce from feeling like this is the beginning of something instead of the end of an era.

“It’s just the look in everybody’s eye when they’re coming to the ballpark,” Hendricks said. “You know when you’re there and you have a chance to go somewhere in October. Or like last year, maybe the year before, we kind of knew guys were trying to prove themselves. That’s not where you want to be. Guys are proven. We know who we have in this clubhouse. We’re going out there to win and make a late run in October.”

(Top photo of Dansby Swanson and Seiya Suzuki: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

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