CHICAGO — The Cubs ran out of things to say during their 10-game losing streak. Manager David Ross didn’t have a “magic answer” in his daily press briefings. During an address on the team’s status, Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations, stated that Ross is “doing a great job overall.” At the Wrigley Field clubhouse, veteran closer David Robertson insisted “it’s not a lack of effort.” As All-Star catcher Willon Contreras put it, “I don’t care about the trade deadline.”
At least it’s over now – the losing streak, not the trade rumours. Keegan Thompson faced Atlanta’s Charlie Morton at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon and kept the defending World Series champion scoreless for six innings. An announced crowd of 35,676 erupted in the eighth inning when Christopher Morel lifted a sacrificial fly into midfield and Jonathan Villar slid headlong onto home plate to establish a run. Robertson finished his tightrope act and loaded bases in the ninth inning, walking two batters and hitting another before bringing the final out at 4:01 towards the high-five line after a 1-0 win, the Atlantas 14-game winning streak ended.
“We’ve been talking as a group for the past few days and we’re just not concerned about what’s being said outside the dressing room,” Thompson said. “The only thing that matters is what’s going on here. We can’t let outside noises get the best of us. Just play hard. We weren’t really worried about their winning streak or our losing streak.”
That sounds nice, but the Cubs are ultimately judged on wins and losses, even if this rebuild season is being graded on a curve. There’s no credible way to positively impact a team that’s already on track to lose 100 games before the inevitable exodus of top league talent at the close. During the Theo Epstein regime, Hoyer was involved in all of the major baseball business decisions that led to this point. The drastic budget cuts to baseball operations during the COVID-19 pandemic have left the major league roster Ross-overseen on the short end of the stick. A string of injuries ended 60 percent of the scheduled rotation, creating the domino effect that resulted in four losses in five days, 8-0, 18-4, 12-5 and 19-5.
“What is that stripe? What are you talking about?” Ross joked during his post-game media session. “We’ve had some ugly ones lately but I haven’t questioned the effort or the intensity of the guys at all. No one has apologized. There’s something about a starting pitcher , who goes out and sets the tone. Charlie Morton was mean today, but so was our guy. When you have that back and forth, it creates a feeling of, ‘Okay, guys, this guy’s got it. Let’s do whatever we can to go for a walk, get a Bunt, steal a base.’ A flat sack fly gives us the win today. It could have easily gone differently and we really wouldn’t be in a good position if we lost this game. That’s what it’s all about – keep fighting.”
Robertson, 37, has credibility as someone who helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series and shone in the New York spotlight. He acknowledges the constraints Ross is currently working under. He has pitched fewer than 19 innings the past three seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He served as his own agent while negotiating a one-year, $3.5 million contract with Hoyer, saw an opportunity to work in the later innings, and recalled how much his family enjoyed Chicago when he was playing for the White Sox played. The track record of experience (145 career saves) and recent performance (1.82 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 24.2 innings) still put him on a virtual ban from being traded through the Aug. 2 deadline.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Robertson said. “I’m not worried about that. I’m here to play baseball and pitch and try to get out. If they ever make that decision, it’s their decision. I’m with these guys in the clubhouse. I’ll try to keep playing hard and winning games.”
Contreras is playing at such a high level – and is so grateful for the chance to spend this weekend with his younger brother William, the Braves catcher – that he won’t vent his frustrations to the media. Some of the questions are repetitive, but Contreras has remained patient and approachable at his locker. With Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez all garnering so much attention last season, Contreras seems to be reveling in this chance to be the leader of the clubhouse — for as long as it lasts — and taking it seriously by playing with gives a positive example of his energy.
Morel struck Morton three times and rebounded, missing the first two pitches from Braves’ AJ Minter in the eighth inning. Morel looked back at Contreras in a circle on deck. Contreras clapped and nodded his head encouragingly. The freshman took a deep breath and came out with the sacrificial fly the Cubs needed at that moment.
“We know we have enough talent here to win ball games – that’s the message we were spreading,” said Contreras. “I don’t want the cameras on me for saying so. I’m just trying to lift this team up because losing sucks. If you’re having a bad day but your attitude is right, you’ll end up having a good day, just like we did today. It is 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 outfield player remains under the club’s control through arbitration next season – but he made his major league debut with the defending World Series champions in 2017. Happ continued playing the 2018 team that somehow won 95 games and still considered that season an underachievement. Happ knows what Wrigley Field feels like when the Cubs roll and understands the value of clubhouse culture.
“These guys come into work every day and do everything right,” Happ said. “Everyone prepares properly, goes out and brings their work in and we play really hard. That’s something that this organization, this coaching staff, has done a really good job with. So as long as we keep doing this, we will get through this and get to the other side.”
The reality is there might only be one or two players who make it through the rebuild and see the next playoff game at Wrigley Field. There’s no timeline for “The Next Great Cubs Team,” a concept that seemed increasingly distant during this 10-game losing streak. There will also be new opportunities, ways for the Cubs to try and speed up the process. It just won’t feel any closer with Contreras and Robertson playing for new teams this summer.
(Photo by Willson Contreras and David Robertson: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)