I’ve ragged on David Ross for an in-game decision or three this season, so it felt like high time to offer some praise for the things he does well. As noted in the long-winded breakdown of Wednesday’s sac bunt, the Cubs manager is a strong motivator with an excellent feel for the personalities of his players. That has been evident throughout the season and it’s been even more clear in this recent stretch of good play in the second half.
In order to find the real inflection point for the Cubs in 2023, however, we need to go back to early June. They weren’t far removed from their only losing month of the season, a 10-18 May that could very well have buried a less motivated group, and they’d just been swept by the Angels in Anaheim to fall to 2-5 in June. The Cubs then went 12-6 through the rest of the month and are 33-20 overall since then.
Not quite as hot as the 2015 squad I have comped them to a couple of times now, but there are some similar throughlines in terms of how they seem to be having fun while scoring runs in bunches. As it turns out, the resurgence wasn’t mere coincidence.
The Angels sweep was their being no-hit by Cole Hamels inflection point. https://t.co/ZlZJAT2G3M
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) August 6, 2023
Ken Rosenthal laid out for The Athletic how David Ross called a team meeting, but not before consulting with Yan Gomes and Dansby Swanson. Gomes was part of the Nationals team that got off to a terrible start before becoming the hottest team in MLB over the last 112 games of the season en route to the 2019 World Series. Swanson’s Braves were no better than the Cubs when they acquired Joc Pederson during the 2021 All-Star break and they didn’t get to .500 until the first week of August, then they too won it all.
Just like social media bullying from fans to add to the team — or at least not subtract from it — ahead of the deadline, the front office was being pressured internally by players who believed this group could win. Swanson was instrumental in that effort, displaying the same frank approach he described when discussing his courtship in free agency.
“My thing was, you can’t just turn it on and off, when you want to win,” Swanson relayed Rosenthal. “If we want to be good, the expectation needs to be that we’re going to win. Just because it’s not going purely as planned this year, you get to a deadline, (you can’t just say) we’re done with the year.
“The message still has to be to everyone that the expectation is this [raising hand above head to show a higher level]. I just kind of said now is a real important moment in culture setting. If we want to be winners here, we can’t just say, ‘All right, we’re going to turn our winner mindset on next year when we feel like we have everything right.’ No. The winning mindset stays at all times.”
Swanson understands that the Chicago Goshdarn Cubs should not have to rebuild for a second time in a decade, or at least that they couldn’t sell off three deadlines in a row and then suddenly hope to compete next season. His sentiments echo those of renowned mental performance coach Catherine Wade, who helped lead the United States to a victory over South Korea in a heated martial arts tournament in 1989. Yes, I’m talking about the iconic action-drama Best of the Best.
“Winning isn’t a sometimes thing,” Wade, played by Sally Kirkland (no relation to Pee Wee), tells her charges during a reluctant meditation session. “It’s an all-the-time thing.”
If the Cubs wanted to be winners, which Swanson envisioned when he signed with them, they needed to start acting like it even if the path forward wasn’t laid out perfectly just yet. There’s a large measure of faith involved in that, and upper management wasn’t quite ready to step out on it just based on what Swanson and others believed. This is, after all, the same front office that’s been talking about threading needles and spending intelligently for the last several years.
Jed Hoyer and Tom Ricketts were going to need a sign, something to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could allow themselves to be swept up in hope and joy once again. So Mike Tauchman leaped up and stole a home run from Alec Burleson of the Cardinals to preserve the Cubs’ seventh win of what would become eight in a row the following evening.
Losing two of three to the Mets — the last of which included some questionable decisions — hasn’t worn off all the shine from taking five of seven from first-place teams at Wrigley prior, but it has introduced a bit of reality to the situation. The Cubs now face the Blue Jays in Toronto, which will be far from a walkover. Their schedule eases up tremendously from there, though, as they have a stretch of 12 games against teams that are a combined 87 games below the .500 mark as of this writing.
That little tour of the AL and NL Central leads to a clash with the Brewers at Wrigley that could well see the division lead on the line. In fact, the Cubs could be in first well before the end of the month. After three against the White Sox, the Brewers must run a gantlet that includes three games each at the Dodgers and Rangers followed by two against the Twins and three against the Padres in Milwaukee.
It’s very easy to see the Cubs making up 2.5 games in that stretch, but they’re going to have to play better than they did in Queens to do it. And hey, maybe making good on their belief in themselves will help this organization avoid future roller-coaster rides when it comes to spending and competitive drive. We can all hope, right?