Two moments in two days at Busch Stadium could mean the difference between the Chicago Cubs selling one or two of their biggest stars or going for broke at the trade deadline.
It began when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas suffered a brain cramp and intentionally hit Ian Happ on Thursday in response to Happ accidentally hitting former teammate Willson Contreras in the head with his backswing. Had Mikolas kept his cool and not been ejected, he wouldn’t have been replaced in the first inning by Dakota Hudson, who promptly imploded in what turned into a 10-3 Cubs win.
And if Cubs center fielder Mike Tauchman didn’t make a sensational, over-the-wall catch with two outs in the ninth inning Friday to rob pinch hitter Alec Burleson of a three-run home run, the Cubs would have suffered a tough, walk-off loss instead of eking out a 3-2 win.
A moment of stupidity and a moment of splendor added up to two huge wins for a surging Cubs team that might not have capitalized on them a couple of months ago.
Those weren’t the only reasons the Cubs pulled within 3 1/2 games of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and three games of the third wild-card spot after a rain-delayed 5-1 victory against the Cardinals on Saturday.
But if President Jed Hoyer was looking for an omen as an excuse to roll the dice before the Tuesday deadline, those W’s on Thursday and Friday were made to order. If he saw the reaction of Cubs players to Friday’s pulsating ending, he would know there’s only one direction to go.
“When you build momentum, you keep riding it,” shortstop Dansby Swanson told me after Friday’s win. “It’s a big thing in this game, and we’ve been playing such good baseball recently, I just think it’s rewarding to see the work everybody has put in and what this group has done and what we’ve battled through so far to get to this point.
“This isn’t the end-all, right? This isn’t where we want to be. But you can definitely take so many great things from what we’ve been doing recently. Players making plays when they need to be made.
“We can talk about analytics, or we can talk about this, that and the other thing. But players making plays, that’s the name of the game in any sport, and tonight we made some big plays, and none was bigger than Mike’s catch at the end.”
Emotions already were running high on a sweltering summer night, with thousands of road-tripping Cubs fans on their feet and ready to sing. Perhaps the second-best feeling to a walk-off home run is robbing the other team of a walk-off homer, and the Cubs celebrated like they had won the World Series.
“One of the coolest moments I’ve been a part of,” first baseman Trey Mancini said afterward. “It was awesome. You take all that excitement into the clubhouse with you, and it’s fun. That’s why we do this. I’m really proud of this team, the way we’ve been playing the last couple weeks. Tonight’s game really epitomizes that.”
A late-afternoon downpour might have delayed Saturday’s game, but it couldn’t stop the trade-deadline talk that has been the focus of the media the last few weeks. When the Texas Rangers reportedly agreed to a deal to acquire Max Scherzer from the New York Mets on Saturday, some wondered whether the Cubs would be interested in the other Mets ace, 40-year-old Justin Verlander, who also could be on the market.
Verlander wanted to be dealt from the Detroit Tigers to the Cubs late in the 2017 season, but the Cubs’ interest was lukewarm. Hoyer later told WSCR-AM 670: “There’s ones that you beat yourself up over because you think: ‘What could we have seen differently? Could we have predicted this?’ Obviously we didn’t. (Verlander’s) late-career resurgence has been amazing.”
Would Hoyer jump at another shot at Verlander, who has a no-trade clause and another year left on a two-year, $87 million deal, plus a conditional $35 million option for 2024? Would Verlander even agree to come to the Cubs if asked for what likely would be the end of his career?
It’s not a crime to dream. Nothing gets a clubhouse geeked like the addition of a superstar, as happened in 2016 when the Cubs acquired closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees.
“If not now, when?” President Theo Epstein famously said that day, referring to the team’s quest to end its championship drought.
Hoyer can’t really say the same. The Cubs have only gone seven years without a championship. So if it’s not now, it could be the winter or even next year’s trade deadline before the Cubs go all in.
That 2016 team was already headed to the postseason, and Epstein was looking to shore up a weakness. This year’s edition was only one game over .500 on Saturday and still a long shot to make the playoffs, much less win it all.
Asked Saturday if there’s value in the clubhouse with management making even a small move at the deadline, manager David Ross told the Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro “your question is set up for controversy, to me,” adding that “every player would say that.”
Not sure where the controversy is in that, but maybe Ross is feeling more pressure than we know. He has been asked about the trade deadline for weeks and never seemed to take it personally.
The closer the Cubs get to the deadline, and the longer this hot streak continues, the greater the pressure is on Hoyer to make the right call. And if he does decide to go for it, the pressure will be on Ross to keep the train rolling.
Meanwhile, Cubs fans have been scoreboard watching to see how the other division and wild-card contenders were faring. Mancini said it’s too early for the players to follow suit, and Swanson agreed.
“What’s the point?” Swanson asked. “At the end of the day, we have to do our job.”
Of course. But the closer the Cubs get to a playoff spot, the harder it would be for management to sell off some key pieces, right?
“If we just keep playing good baseball, man, we’ll be in good shape,” Swanson said.
The countdown to Tuesday is on.
Do you know where your Cubs are?