Oftentimes, it’s hard to really pinpoint when a team became great, that moment when the players, the fans, basically anyone following the team accepted the team isn’t just pretending, they legitimately are good. But for the 2015, it’s hard to deny when that stretch came. Kris Bryant certainly didn’t hesitate.
“I think in early August when we went on that run there and started playing really good baseball,” Bryant said. “We realized we had a real good shot at this. But I think from the very get go we believed in ourselves, we knew we had a good team and knew we could beat the best of the best. I think when you have that belief in yourself, the sky really is the limit.”
Manager Joe Maddon got a little more specific, recalling when his team swept a four-game set against defending champion San Francisco Giants—a series against a team they were a half game behind for the final wild card spot prior to game one.
“I thought the series against the Giants was really pertinent,” Maddon said. “They’re really good, they’re coming in here and we have a ton of respect for what they’ve done. They know how to win, all that stuff. I thought that series there, to me, in my mind, proved to me and to us that we could do this.”
There’s no doubt early August—and in particular, the sweep of the Giants—was crucial for the Cubs. It came in the midst of a 21-4 stretch and the half game deficit the Cubs faced prior to the Giants series was the last time they’d be out of the playoff spot for the rest of the season.
But while it’s important to remember the good, it’s also easy to do so. The game-winning home runs, the brilliant pitching performances, the defensive gems, those are—and should be—at the forefront of our minds when thinking of this Cubs season. But there are also crucial moments in a season when a team is struggling, when nothing seems to be going their way, but they somehow still manage to pull out some wins.
For the Cubs, that happened immediately prior to their 21-4 run. In the nine-game stretch just preceding their hot streak, the Cubs went 3-6, with each of those three victories coming in rather surprising fashion. Remarkably, a losing stretch could have been a key to the turning point in the season.
7/21 at Cincinnati: With the Cubs trailing by two in the ninth, Kyle Schwarber, playing in front of his hometown crowd, launched a mammoth home run to tie the game at four. The game remained tied until the 13th, when Schwarber doubled down on his home-run hitting ways, and gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead, which would end up being the final score. This immediately went down, unsurprisingly, as The Schwarber Game.
“Just looking back on that game, it was big moment for me, because obviously Cincinnati is my hometown. Things could have gone differently in a lot of different games, little wins,” Schwarber told me as he rattled off a few unexpected wins the Cubs have pulled off this season. “All these little things, they all lead up to where we are now. That’s just a testament to us always battling to the end. We’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep the throttle down and it’s going to be constant pressure for nine innings.”
7/22 at Cincinnati: After dropping the first game of a double header, the Cubs quickly fell behind 5-0 in the second inning of the nightcap. After the Cubs battled back for three runs in the top of the third, the Reds decided to issue a two-out intentional walk to David Ross to load the bases. The thought process there was that most managers wouldn’t pull their starter after just two innings of work in the second game of a double header. But Maddon didn’t hesitate; it was almost as if he was baiting opposing manager Bryan Price to load them up, so he could bring Kris Bryant off the bench. Bryant delivered with a two-run single to tie the game at five, and the Cubs would eventually score another run in the ninth and win the game 6-5.
7/27 vs Colorado: The Cubs had just been swept by the lowly Phillies and the doubters were out in droves. Cubs twitter had gone from #WeAreGood to #WeAreMediocre in a matter of panic-inducing days. No team could recover mentally to a series like that, especially one that featured the team getting no-hit for the first time in nearly 50 years. And even if they could recover mentally, this was just proof that they weren’t talented enough to make the postseason—surely they’d been playing over their heads for nearly four months. Leading 7-4 in the top of the ninth, the Cubs lead quickly evaporated, after two quick runs, a scorching-hot Carlos Gonzalez put what appeared to be the final nail in the coffin with a two-run homer off the recently promoted Rafael Soriano.
However, all that abysmal half inning did was setup perhaps the greatest moment of the season thus far. A one-out single by Dexter Fowler was quickly followed by a David Ross flyout (remember the angst in that moment over the fact that he’d replaced Schwarber for defense?). Enter Kris Bryant. Bryant took a 1-0 pitch deep to left-center and into the bleachers, giving the Cubs a 9-8 victory and in the process transforming the despondent Wrigley faithful into a state of bliss.
This moment can’t be understated. The Cubs were on the brink of losing four straight to bad teams, the most recent of which would have been an absolute punch to gut, a blow in the standings, and possibly bringing doubt into the minds of some in the clubhouse, probably for the first time all year. But Bryant kept that from happening. The Cubs would lose the next evening, but go on their amazing run with a victory one day later.
“It was huge,” Bryant told me Saturday morning. “I think we were up a couple runs in the ninth inning and it’s really easy to let the air out of the tires, kind of feel defeated there. I mean, they play it on the commercials every game we got, so we get to relive that moment. I’m glad I got to provide that spark that we needed. That game was one that we can look back on and realize was a big win in our season.”
While the Cubs were seemingly winning on a nightly basis, Maddon was asked about how the team reacted to the struggles that preceded their torrid August.
“It’s been kind of nice how they responded,” Maddon said. “I’ve been in that moment before, in Tampa Bay when the Mets came in a couple years ago. They just went through us like Grant through Richmond. It just happens sometimes and you have to move it along; it’s part of a baseball season, it happens. Did it wake us up? I don’t think so, I just think we continued along our merry way and eventually we got back and played like we can.”
Perhaps that experience for Maddon helped him guide his team during the multiple rough patches they’ve faced this year. Right before starting a series against the Chicago White Sox on the South Side, general manager Jed Hoyer didn’t mince words, he believed having Maddon as manager was a big key to being able to accomplish that.
“We talked about how some heroics really saved us from having a long losing streak.” Hoyer said. “I think Joe really was brilliant through that stretch. He believed in our guys, believed we would come through that stretch. I think that double-header and that series in Cincinnati kind of sapped us of some energy. It was a tough stretch, it was really hot, we had a 13-inning game followed by a double header; that was hard. Then we kind of rebounded and gained some fresh legs and it added to the stretch. Joe’s never wavered in his belief in this team. He believes every night we’re going to go out there and win and give a good effort. The players know he believes in them and I think he’s hit exactly the right notes when we’ve struggled. Odds are there’ll be another one, and we have all the confidence that he’ll hit all the right notes again.”
Indeed the Cubs have had more rough stretches, and so far, they’ve responded emphatically to each one. A three-game losing streak in mid-August was followed by six straight wins. A 1-6 stretch in San Francisco and Los Angeles didn’t linger, and the Cubs went 8-2 in their next 10. A split in Philadelphia to start a critical road trip was certainly disappointing, but taking three of four from the Pirates and two of three from St. Louis ensured that the bad feelings didn’t prevail.
“That’s what good teams do,” Schwarber said. “You’re gonna go through rough patches and we’re gonna have to find ways to win. It might not be the prettiest way to win, but you gotta win. At the end of the day, that’s the job description, to go out there and win. We got a really good group of guys that put all our focus into winning. Whatever we can do to help the team win, that’s what we have to do.”
Bryant likened it a rough stretch at the plate. You find ways to still contribute even if you’re not hitting as much as you’d like.
“I think the good teams scrape wins out when you’re not playing well,” Bryant stated. “You know, 2-for-9 with a hit by pitch and three walks is better than a 2-for-13. So, just scraping those wins out, grinding them out, doing anything you can to help, those are perfect games.”
The Cubs are currently in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Doubters will surely wonder if they’re going to limp into the postseason. Those who haven’t followed closely will claim this group isn’t mentally tough enough to handle this current down period. Don’t listen to any of that talk. This group has proven time and again that they can bounce back from even the toughest of losses. Even in seemingly dark times, the Cubs have always seen light.
The Cubs dropped one on Saturday, but they celebrated after the game because this means something. Making the postseason is something that should be cherished, as Jon Lester pointed out on Friday, some players wait their whole careers just to get a taste of that moment, so every player, young or old, should make sure they appreciate every opportunity to celebrate. There’s no reason any one of us should expect it to be the last time we see champagne poured at Wrigley Field in 2015.
Lead photo courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports