CHICAGO — It’s easy to look at the stats and quickly tell why the Chicago Cubs are off to a fast start to this shortened Major League Baseball season. Their 9-2 record — after a nail-biting 5-4 win over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday — can be chalked up to the best starting rotation (1.95 ERA) in baseball, the third-best OPS (.792) at the plate and an exponentially improved-looking defense. But that wouldn’t be telling the full story of the 9-2 Cubs — certainly not in the age of COVID-19.
In a results-oriented business, the Cubs’ test results for the virus — knock on wood — have come back as clean as their play on the field. Perhaps it’s strictly good fortune, but the team can be proud that it hasn’t had a positive test for the coronavirus since intake testing took place before day one of summer camp. No other team in baseball can say the same.
“It proves we’re doing things right, but the last thing you want is to relax and get too comfortable,” center fielder and team player rep Ian Happ said. “It’s very important to continue on the path that we have. The one thing we keep saying is you have to treat everyone like they have it. You have to treat every single person that you come in contact with [like] they have it. That’s going to keep everyone safe.”
And keeping everyone safe is going to lead to the playoffs, right? Maybe that’s going too far, but there is a line to be drawn from adherence of protocols to at least some success on the diamond. The Cubs believe it.
“I think it does [have an effect] because if you have a professional attitude toward [the coronavirus], I think it carries over to what you do at the field,” Jason Kipnis, who homered Tuesday, said.
In the middle of a wild, pandemic season, something has seemingly awoken on the North Side of Chicago, where the Cubs reside. It feels, smells and looks like a return to their winning culture. They had it once before, not too far in the distant past, when former manager Joe Maddon took over a team of young but talented players who eventually reached the pinnacle of baseball. But the Cubs’ 2016 World Series title seems like ages ago, as they began a slow decline that culminated in their missing the postseason in 2019 for the first time in five years.
“I think we’ve had more talent than the results would indicate the last couple years,” team president Theo Epstein said before Tuesday’s win. “That’s why there have been different attempts to change the environment.”
The Cubs finally changed it in the biggest way possible, saying goodbye to Maddon and hello to one of their own from that 2016 team. Enter former Cubs catcher David Ross and the birth of a new culture — or perhaps the rebirth of a winning one.
“The guy creates energy all by himself,” Epstein said.
Is there any better quality in a manager for 2020? With empty stadiums, rigorous health protocols and less than normal clubhouse camaraderie, the Cubs stumbled on the one guy who brought the energy for the two years he was one of the team’s catchers. If Ross was the right man for the job before the pandemic, he’s even better in the middle of it.
“Joe [Maddon] had that effect in 2015,” Epstein said. “It was transformative. … With David Ross, it’s been equally transformative, just in a different way. He has stepped in and helped address some things that have been lingering for years.”
Epstein wouldn’t get into specifics, but you can bank on those things being in the vicinity of accountability. Talk about another quality needed during this crisis season; Ross won’t let anything slide. He has already pulled veteran All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel twice in the ninth inning — including Tuesday — which led to two wins for the Cubs.
That brings us back to the stats, even with a five-game win streak going: They aren’t all pretty.
Along with that best rotation in baseball, the Cubs have compiled the highest bullpen ERA, currently at 7.55 after a two-run ninth inning by the Royals before win No. 9 was sealed. That will have to change. In fact, the Cubs have given up 11 ninth-inning runs in 11 games. That’s more than what 12 other teams combined have given up in the ninth.
But it’s the only sore spot on a team whose offense is reminding die-hard fans of 2016 more and more. The Cubs are seeing the most pitches per plate appearance of any team in baseball, a stat they ranked just 22nd in last year.
You get the picture: The Cubs are playing their best baseball in several years.
Don’t discount how they’re doing it.
“If we’re in the training room, in a hot tub, and there’s a guy next to us, we’re both wearing masks,” Kipnis said.
Happ added, “It comes from the top. It comes from what the [club owner] Ricketts family was willing to provide for us, which was everything and anything that we could possibly have needed to make it through this.”
Finally, Tuesday’s winning pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, noted, “We’re treating every situation with respect, professionally. Taking it all serious, but we’re just leaning on each other.”
It’s the only way through a season that might be only 60 games but could feel like 160 by the time it’s over. The Cubs embark on a three-city road trip next, including a stop in St. Louis this weekend, where the Cardinals will restart their season after an outbreak of the virus among their players and staff.
Chicago’s challenges pale in comparison to those of the Cardinals, but every team will face moments that will test it. The first longer road trip is bound to be one of them for the Cubs. In any case, all we can say right now is that the Cubs are off to a great start — on and off the field. For a team that missed the postseason and finished third in the NL Central last year, that’s no small thing.
“It’s a shorter season, but it’s going to be a long year,” veteran outfielder Jason Heyward said. “It’s going to be a grind, and every game counts, so we want to make sure that we’re in every pitch as best as possible.”