In Texas, baseball is sort of like waiting-room reading material, to be browsed until the Cowboys and the other football gods lace ’em up in a few weeks for the sport that really matters.
So there wasn’t a lot of angst around Dallas over the Rangers’ recent rough patch.
Less than a month ago, their Wrigley Field series with the Cubs this weekend could have been touted — and probably was, somewhere — as a World Series preview. The Rangers were 51-27 (.654) on June 28 and led the American League West by 10 games. They had gone more than five weeks without a two-game losing streak and were 29-9 since last dropping two straight.
The Cubs were 47-20 (.672) on June 19 and led the National League Central by 12½ games. They hadn’t lost consecutive games since May 22-23 and were 18-6 in the three-plus weeks that followed.
We all know what has happened since: 15 losses in 21 games before the All-Star break, prompting panic in the streets of Wrigleyville over a division lead that had “shrunk” to seven games.
The Rangers are trying to clear their throats of a similar hiccup, having gone 3-8 before the break and allowing the Astros to creep within 5½ games. And they don’t want to hear about the 24-games-in-24-days ordeal the Cubs recently endured; the Rangers’ pre-break schedule featured 20 games in 20 days, one day off, then 17 games in 17 days.
Manager Joe Maddon was careful not to ascribe his team’s recent struggles to fatigue, but he couldn’t dismiss it, especially after acknowledging that he’d spent most of his All-Star break sleeping and not trying to devise bold new tactics.
“I always try to gauge where the guys are based on how I feel, though that might not be fair because they’re out there playing,” Maddon said. “But I’m not sure I’ve ever been that tired, ever. And if I felt the need for a rest, I’m sure some of our guys did.”
Fatigue is a fact of life over the unrelenting grind of a six-month, 162-game season. The best teams find a way to get through it. The Cubs would seem equipped to do so with the depth they have accumulated, though Maddon noted that “youthful mistakes, inexperienced mistakes” are more common among players still finding their way as big-leaguers.
Simply put, the Cubs probably are not as good as they looked while they were dominating baseball for the season’s first 67 games, nor as bad as they looked stumbling through their most recent 21 before the break. But this being Chicago, there is no middle ground; in the mercurial minds of many despairing Cubs fans, the ’27 Yankees quickly morphed into the ’62 Mets.
Maddon said the Cubs will not be distracted by “outside noise.”
“It’s fans being fans,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s just how it is, how it should be. Supporting each other with the peer-group concept in here is what we have to focus on.”
Skid, slump . . . whatever it’s called, whatever its cause, it represents the first real “adversity” this Cubs group has faced. No one saw them as a playoff team last year, so they were playing with house money once they reached the postseason. Their showing, plus some significant winter acquisitions, fueled massive expectations. A blazing-hot start lifted them off the charts and prompted media fawning that has yet to subside.
But as those 21 pre-All-Star games proved, the pace was unsustainable. Let’s see how they handle the remaining 2½ months.
“We got off to that wonderful start that enabled us to overcome some things,” Maddon said. “We still have the things that contributed to that start. I think as we get well, we’ll have another nice run in us.”
Friday’s performance was a mid-May flashback. Kyle Hendricks, reputedly the No. 5 starter in a recently maligned rotation, was asked to get the second half underway in good order. He responded with six scoreless innings, and four relievers completed the shutout. Javy Baez (two) and Albert Almora helped keep him spotless with sweet defensive plays, and Kris Bryant turned in an inning-ending gem in the eighth after Texas put two runners on against Travis Wood. Addison Russell and pinch hitter Matt Szczur contributed two-run singles to a game-breaking, five-run sixth inning, which the Rangers aided and abetted with some slapstick fielding.
It all added up to a 6-0 Cubs victory, which ought to bring their fans off the ledge.