Identity crisis averted? Cubs optimistic comebacks lead to more

The Cubs had a losing record through 13 games? Two days later, they beat the Brewers to win their fourth series in the last five.

The power-hitting champs were striking out too much and getting out-homered by lesser teams? But then came Wednesday, when Albert Almora Jr. homered early for the Cubs’ first run and Addison Russell walked it off in the ninth with a two-out, three-run shot to left field to beat the Brewers 7-4.

And what about that bullpen that couldn’t hold a lead all weekend? The Cubs’ last eight pitching changes haven’t yielded a run, and the bullpen had enough swagger by Wednesday that it showed off by scoring the winning run.

Pinch-running reliever Carl Edwards Jr. even swore afterward he could have stolen second and third bases but settled for advancing on a hit and grounder, then trotted home from third on Russell’s game-ender.

Addison Russell's feet never touched the ground as he rounded the bases on his game-winning homer in Wednesday's ninth.

So which is it? Who are these Cubs 15 games into their title defense?

If you claim to know, you’re lying.

“One of the things about coming off of a world championship or coming off of a really good season is that there’s a tendency to think we have the same group together, so the same things are going to happen again,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of a team that improved to 8-7 with comeback wins against the Brewers the last two games — after being 11-4 a year ago on the way to 103 wins and a title.

“I think every team has to create their own identity,” Hoyer said, “and every team has to go through that process again. Maybe [the early adversity] is good for us in a way. It forces our guys to realize that just bringing back a lot of the same guys on a really good team doesn’t [make it] just happen overnight.”

Identity? For opponents, the identity is as clear as the diamond-studded shine of World Series rings.

“These teams we’re playing, man, they’re coming for us,” said struggling right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who walked four and gave up two home runs in five innings. “We have the target on our backs. They’re playing their best baseball.”

Nobody said it was going to be easy the second time around. In fact, many warned since the winter of the challenges that include the shorter offseason, the trappings of sudden celebrity, the so-called hangover and the simple odds stacked against a repeat.

“It’s not like we’re playing poorly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re just not hitting up to our capabilities yet. The defense overall has been really good. The starting pitching for the most part has been really good. And I think you’re seeing really good signs out of some of the bullpen guys.”

If anything, surviving a 4-5 homestand might have been as significant as any other feat during the early part of the season.

The Cubs opened the home-stand with a rain-delayed, first-ever championship banner-raising ceremony that pushed the game well after midnight and ended with Anthony Rizzo’s walk-off single in the ninth. An emotional ring ceremony came before the second game. And smaller events involving the championship were spread throughout the rest of the homestand.

The only series the Cubs have lost so far was the weekend sweep by the Pirates that involved blown leads in all three games — while Edwards, the team’s top reliever, was on bereavement leave.

“There’s been a lot going on, a lot of outside factors pushing against us,” said Hendricks, who is fighting his own mechanical and velocity issues. “So to be able to focus on the game, get some big wins [was important].”

Said Hoyer: “It takes time [to build an identity]. I’m certainly not concerned.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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