‘Prioritizing winning’: What the Cubs are playing for in the second half of a losing season
The Cubs touted their winning culture for years. So how does a team maintain a winning culture with a 34-52 record?
LOS ANGELES — Cubs left-hander Drew Smyly sighed and in eight words summed up the reason for the tense silence in the visiting clubhouse Sunday at Dodger Stadium.
‘‘I think we’re all just sick of losing,’’ Smyly said.
To be fair, before this past weekend, the Cubs had won consecutive series against the Cardinals, Reds, Red Sox and Brewers. Three of the four are playoff contenders. But the Cubs had just been swept in a four-game series by the Dodgers. That wound was fresh.
The Cubs lost all four games by two runs or fewer, and they blew leads of 5-0 and 8-3 on Sunday.
‘‘You can look back at a lot of our season, we’ve been in a lot of games,’’ Smyly said. ‘‘We’ve been in a lot of extra-inning games, and it seems like we lose most of them. But we’re right there with everybody, day in [and] day out. We just haven’t really been able to pull it out. That’s usually the difference between really good teams and not-so-good teams.’’
The Dodgers are a really good team. And Smyly’s right about those extra-inning games. The Cubs lead the National League with 12, including a 10-inning loss Saturday to the Dodgers, and they’ve gone 3-9 in them.
‘‘At the end of the day, we’ve got to win baseball games, and that’s the job,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘We continue to grow and pull from some moments and try to assess where we could have been better as we look back on it. There’s areas where [we have] things to be proud of, for sure. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out how to win baseball games.’’
The sentiment remains true, even as the Cubs’ fate for this season appears to be set. They are positioned firmly as sellers as the trade deadline nears, sitting fourth in the NL Central with a 34-52 record and without a realistic shot at the playoffs.
That doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for, however.
‘‘Regardless of standings, I think prioritizing winning is the only way to stay sane through those things,’’ shortstop Nico Hoerner said a couple of weeks ago. ‘‘I think it keeps you oriented in the right way. And winning I don’t think is something that one day you just turn a switch on and say, ‘Oh, now it’s time to win.’ Winning takes practice, it takes a lot of people and it takes daily work.
‘‘And I’m still learning what that means from guys that have done it before and from my own experiences.’’
The Cubs touted their ‘‘winning culture’’ for years. So how does a team maintain a winning culture while it’s not doing all that much winning?
‘‘It’s about doing little things right,’’ said outfielder Ian Happ, who is set to make his first All-Star appearance next week. ‘‘It’s about celebrating the little things, the things that really good teams do well. They run the bases really well. They play really solid defense. All the little things are taken care of when you have good, winning teams. Sometimes they’re talked about and celebrated, but sometimes it’s just the expectation.’’
Happ remembers that, when he got to the big leagues in 2017, he was surprised at how much pride the Cubs took in going from first to third or in scoring from second on a single. Then-manager Joe Maddon made that an emphasis in spring training. And that team had just won the World Series.
‘‘That’s where the older guys come in,’’ said third-base coach Willie Harris, who won the 2005 World Series with the White Sox, ‘‘and kind of take the younger guys under their wings and say, ‘Hey, man, we do it like this.’ Whether that be, if you hit a ground ball at the pitcher, ‘Hey, we’re running 75% [as] opposed to 35%.’ Just building that culture. Ross, he’s done a heck of a job doing that.’’
The Cubs have only three players left on their roster from their 2016 championship team — Ross makes four — and catcher Willson Contreras, outfielder Jason Heyward and right-hander Kyle Hendricks all have garnered praise for their influence on their younger teammates. But they’re not the only Cubs veterans with championship experience.
Closer David Robertson won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees. Catcher Yan Gomes claimed the 2019 title with the Nationals. And reliever Chris Martin and Smyly helped the Braves to a championship last season.
‘‘These guys are buying in,’’ Harris said. ‘‘And hopefully we can start winning some games and all these core values and all this culture starts to show up.’’