ST. LOUIS — “That was nuts,” Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said with a smile as he emerged from Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse after Friday night’s 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. The thump of the dance music blasting in the locker room could be heard through the walls as the media waited outside for Ross’ news conference to begin. Mike Tauchman’s jaw-dropping catch at the center-field wall to end the game made this an instant classic.
Tauchman timed his jump perfectly at the warning track, grabbing the ball before it touched the grassy hill above the fence and taking a two-run homer away from St. Louis pinch-hitter Alec Burleson. Tauchman tumbled back to the ground, squeezing the ball in his glove to secure the Cubs’ seventh consecutive win and avoid what would have been a crushing walk-off loss. Tauchman popped back up and screamed, “Let’s go!”
This is the type of moment that president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer will reference if — maybe when — he explains why the Cubs became buyers before Tuesday’s trade deadline. The cryptic way in which the Cubs are handling their pitching staff makes you wonder what’s going on behind the scenes. The Marcus Stroman trade rumors continue. Media speculation connects Cody Bellinger to other teams ranging from coast to coast. But sometimes the simplest answer is correct.
The Cubs are in win-now mode right now, trying to find any edge within each matchup and playing with consistent focus and concentration. Those types of teams don’t dump their best players for prospects in the middle of the season. It’s taken 100-plus games for that confirmation, but the Cubs are a different group from the one that left Arizona at the end of spring training.
“We don’t win that game early in the season,” Ross said.
Tauchman, who played last year in Korea and started this season with Triple-A Iowa, pinch hit for Trey Mancini in the ninth inning, which moved Bellinger from center field to first base. As demonstrative as Tauchman can be on the field, he processes the game in a detached voice and with a dry sense of humor. As reporters gathered around his locker, Tauchman pointed out how his highlight-reel catch stood up because Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson executed a 4-6-3 double play after Adbert Alzolay allowed back-to-back singles in the ninth inning. Tauchman praised Alzolay’s composure on the mound.
“There’s ups and downs in a season,” Tauchman said. “But we have a lot of really, really good baseball players in this room. We’re pretty multidimensional on offense. The bullpen has really been sharp. The starting pitching has been great all year. The defense kind of speaks for itself. That’s all the characteristics of a good team.”
The pitching that’s supposed to be the Cubs’ biggest strength hasn’t fueled this recent hot streak, either, which could be interpreted as a red flag for the stretch run or an encouraging sign of a team that’s finding ways to win. Drew Smyly has been transferred to the “TBD” zone, temporarily working out of the bullpen, though the lefty is still expected to pitch multiple innings and probably return to the rotation at some point. The Cubs waited until about three hours ahead of Friday’s first pitch before announcing Hayden Wesneski as their starter against the Cardinals, a move that had been in the works.
Even going back to the Theo Epstein era, the Cubs are a team that rarely uses the opener strategy. Among Stroman, Kyle Hendricks and Jameson Taillon, the Cubs committed roughly $195 million to those three starters. Justin Steele is an All-Star whose name will likely appear in this year’s Cy Young Award voting. Even without adding an opener to the bullpen’s workload, the Cubs have probably squeezed as much as they could have out of this group of relievers.
With a 52-51 record and three games to go before the trade deadline, the Cubs should reinforce the bullpen and give Ross more options in the later innings. Perhaps something clicked for Wesneski during his Triple-A reset, and the Cubs still believe he will be a major-league starter for a long time. Seeing Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Willson Contreras while making up ground in the playoff race will also create a sense of urgency.
“We’re trying to find ways to be creative,” Ross said. “We’re trying to maximize every small advantage we feel like we can find on paper. That doesn’t always translate to in-game success, but we are trying to pull some of those levers and see how it plays out. I don’t know if it’s a long-term thing that we feel like we’re going to go to consistently, but we’re definitely trying to maximize that in this one moment.
“We’re playing a team eight times within 11 days and they have a heavy right-handed-based lineup that has hit lefties really well while Drew is probably not the best version of himself. There’s a lot of factors that go into that with how he’s pitching and what the numbers are telling us.”
Ross described it as “just trying to find a softer landing” for Smyly, who followed opener Michael Fulmer in last weekend’s 8-6 win over the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. Smyly flirted with a perfect game in April and posted a 3.09 ERA in six May starts, helping stabilize the rotation while Taillon struggled and Hendricks worked his way off the injured list. Smyly also has a 6.89 ERA in his previous 10 outings.
“The metrics on his off-speed stuff are still really, really good,” Ross said. “It just plays that much better when the fastball is in the zone. He’s got to get ahead and be on the attack. Just some little things like that. He’s not far off. He’s had a little bit of bad luck here and there, some miscues behind him.”
The defense — another big part of this team’s identity — slipped while Swanson was sidelined for 12 games this month with a left heel contusion. The Gold Glove shortstop made slick run-saving plays to back up Wesneski and Smyly during Friday’s game, reminding the crowd of 43,424 why the Cubs gave him a seven-year, $177 million contract.
Smyly and Wesneski each gave up a solo home run to Lars Nootbaar but otherwise combined to control the Cardinals for 6 1/3 innings. Even while Stroman is struggling and the fifth starter is a question mark, the Cubs are gaining traction in the wild-card chase and keeping the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in sight. During this 9-1 stretch, the Cubs have won games with final scores such as 8-6 and 10-7, showing resiliency at a time when Hoyer appeared ready to go into sell mode.
“There are always different parts in the season,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Pitching usually wins early. And then you hit a point in the season where hitting catches the pitching. Then you hit a point in the season where offense takes over because of the weather and the way the environment plays.
“What I love about where we are is you still feel like the pitching and defense is a huge strength of ours. Having Dansby back and now being able to have our infield back to where we want it to be is huge.”
The Cubs have stars playing like stars. Young talent is bursting onto the scene. Veteran players with World Series rings are there to remind everyone it’s a long season. Forget about surplus value or any of the other jargon that dominates the way people talk about the game now. Remember what teams that are 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot do at the trade deadline.
“We’re in such a time in baseball of trying to understand and evaluate and analyze everything,” Hoerner said. “Sometimes things just line up and happen and you just roll with it and enjoy it.”
(Photo of Mike Tauchman, left, and Miles Mastrobuoni: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)