CHICAGO — The Cubs were running out of things to say during their 10-game losing streak. Manager David Ross didn’t have “any magical answer” in his daily press conferences. During a state of the team address, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer indicated Ross is doing “a great job,” all things considered. Within the Wrigley Field clubhouse, veteran closer David Robertson insisted “it’s not for a lack of effort.” All-Star catcher Willson Contreras put it this way: “I don’t care about the trade deadline.”
At least it’s over now — the losing streak, not the trade rumors. Keegan Thompson matched Atlanta’s Charlie Morton on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, holding the defending World Series champs scoreless for six innings. An announced crowd of 35,676 erupted in the eighth inning when Christopher Morel lifted a sacrifice fly to center field and Jonathan Villar slid headfirst into home plate to manufacture a run. Robertson finished his high-wire act, loading the bases in the ninth inning by walking two batters and hitting another before getting the final out at 4:01 pm “Go Cubs Go” blared from the ballpark’s sound system as Contreras clapped and danced his way toward the high-five line after a 1-0 victory that snapped Atlanta’s 14-game winning streak.
“We talked as a group the last couple days and it’s just not worrying about what’s being said outside the locker room,” Thompson said. “The only thing that matters is what’s going on in here. We can’t let outside noise get the best of us. Just play hard. We weren’t really worried about their winning streak or our losing streak.”
That sounds nice, but the Cubs are ultimately judged on wins and losses, even if this rebuilding season is being graded on a curve. There’s no credible way to put a positive spin on a team that’s already on pace to lose 100 games — before the inevitable exodus of major-league talent at the trade deadline. During the Theo Epstein regime, Hoyer was involved in all of the major decisions in baseball operations that led to this point. The drastic budget cuts in baseball operations during the COVID-19 pandemic shortchanged the major-league roster that Ross oversees. A rash of injuries shut down 60 percent of the projected rotation, which created the domino effect that led to four losses in five days by the scores of 8-0, 18-4, 12-5 and 19-5.
“What streak is that? What are you talking about?” Ross joked during his postgame media session. “We’ve had some ugly ones lately, but I haven’t questioned the effort or the intensity of the guys at all. Nobody’s been making excuses. There’s something about a starting pitcher going out and setting the tone. Charlie Morton was nasty today, but so was our guy. When you have that back and forth, it breeds a sense of: ‘OK, boys, this guy’s got it. Let’s do all we can to work a walk, get a bunt down, steal a base.’ A shallow sac fly gets us the win today. That could have easily gone the other way and we’d be really not in a good place if we lose that game. That’s what it’s all about — keep on fighting.”
Robertson, 37, has credibility as someone who helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series and handled the New York spotlight. He recognizes the constraints that Ross is working under right now. He pitched fewer than 19 innings across the last three seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He served as his own agent while negotiating a one-year, $3.5 million contract with Hoyer, seeing an opportunity to work in the later innings and remembering how much his family enjoyed Chicago while he played for the White Sox. The track record of experience (145 career saves) and recent performance (1.82 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 24.2 innings) still makes him a virtual lock to get traded by the Aug. 2 deadlines.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Robertson said. “I don’t worry about that. I’m here to play baseball and pitch and try to get outs. If they ever make that decision, that’s their decision. I’m with these guys in the clubhouse. I’m going to try to continue to play hard and win games.”
Contreras is playing at such a high level — and is so appreciative of the chance to spend this weekend with his younger brother, William, the Braves catcher — that he won’t be venting any frustrations through the media. Some of the questions get repetitive, but Contreras has remained patient and approachable at his locker. After Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez drew so much attention last season, Contreras seems to be enjoying this chance to be the clubhouse leader — for however long it lasts — and taking it seriously by setting a positive example with his energy.
Morel struck out three times against Morton and swung at and missed the first two pitches from Braves reliever AJ Minter in the eighth inning. Morel looked back at Contreras in the on-deck circle. Contreras clapped and nodded his head in encouragement. The rookie took a deep breath and came through with the sacrifice fly the Cubs needed in that moment.
“We know that we have enough talent here to start winning ballgames — that is the message that we’ve been spreading around,” Contreras said. “I don’t want to put the cameras on me because I’m saying it. I’m just trying to lift this team up because losing sucks. If you’re having a bad day, but your attitude’s right on point, you’re going to end up having a good day, like we did today. It’s not about me. It’s about the Cubs. I love this team. I love my team.”
Ian Happ isn’t an obvious trade chip at the level of Contreras or Robertson — the outfielder remains under club control next season through the arbitration system — but he made his major-league debut with the defending World Series champs in 2017. Happ played on the 2018 team that somehow won 95 games and still considered that season to be an underachievement. Happ knows what Wrigley Field feels like when the Cubs are rolling and understands the value of clubhouse culture.
“These guys come to work every day and do all the right things,” Happ said. “Everybody does the right prep, goes out and gets their work in, and we’re playing really hard. That’s something that this organization, this coaching staff, has done a really good job with. So as long as we continue to do that, we’ll get through this and get to the other side of it.”
The reality is there might only be one or two players who make it through the rebuild and see the next playoff game at Wrigley Field. There is no timeline for “The Next Great Cubs Team,” a concept that appeared to be increasingly distant during this 10-game losing streak. There will also be new possibilities, ways for the Cubs to try to accelerate the process. It just won’t feel any closer when Contreras and Robertson are playing for new teams this summer.
(Photo of Willson Contreras and David Robertson: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)