A June assignment for all the Cubs: Just go ahead and be like Marcus Stroman

No one on the team has more confidence — or fun — than Stroman, the undersized right-hander who sometimes looks like a kid out there.

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The Cubs’ Marcus Stroman celebrates after completing a shutout of the Rays.

The Cubs’ Marcus Stroman celebrates after completing a shutout of the Rays.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Two days after pitching the game of the season for the Cubs, a one-hit shutout of the Rays that led to a surprising series win against the best team in baseball, Marcus Stroman would have been well within his rights to be walking around Wrigley Field like he owned the place.

He is, after all, “the Opening Day starter, the horse, the guy, No. 1 on this staff,” as manager David Ross describes him.

Yep, the man. After being swept by the Reds here over the weekend, the Cubs appeared to be one more wayward roll from the edge of the cliff when Stroman took the bump against the runaway Rays and maybe, just maybe, saved the season. That’s how good he was, how much energy he brought in a Memorial Day masterpiece.

Yet, on Wednesday, the Cubs missed a big chance to sweep the Rays and end a grueling May on an encouraging note. They blew a 2-0 seventh-inning lead and a 3-2 eighth-inning lead, wasted golden scoring chances of their own in the eighth and ninth and lost 4-3. That’s no way for a team that’s serious about contending in its division — even one as shoddy as the National League Central — to behave.

When you win two of three series on a homestand, as the Cubs did, but still finish with a losing record (4-5), something’s amiss. And it has been for six weeks as the Cubs have gone from 12-7 on April 21 to an atrocious 12-24 since then.

So let’s do this: Let’s challenge the rest of the Cubs with a take-on-the-road assignment, if you will, as they begin a new month with a 10-game trip against the Padres, Angels and Giants.

Be more like Stroman.

Have more fun out there. Play with more joy, more attitude, more sizzle.

Follow the 32-year-old right-hander like he’s your leader, because somebody has to be.

Not everyone has been fond of Stroman in his career. Not everyone has found him to be the most likable player, or the most sincere. Ross talked the other day about how much Stroman feels the bright lights on the big stage, that he’s at his best when all eyes are upon him.

But hardly anyone was watching Wednesday as Stroman performed the simple — yet completely uncommon for a starting pitcher — act of taking infield practice. Positioned at third base hours before the start of the game, he traded rep after rep with hulking slugger Patrick Wisdom, picking ground balls and firing them across the diamond to first. Only 5-7 and clad in an oversized Bulls graphic T-shirt, Stroman looked almost boyish and definitely happy and in his element. He also looked like he’d done this before, which he has, over and over, since joining the Cubs.

“That’s because I’m not a pitcher,” he said a few minutes later. “I’m an athlete. I’m a shortstop and second baseman who just ended up being a pitcher. I’m a baseball player, not a robot like most pitchers are, I feel.”

Stroman puts in work on the infield because it keeps him loose and, he believes, keeps his athleticism sharp in a way that helps him field his actual position as well as make physical adjustments from pitch to pitch that keep hitters from locking in against him. For a former pitching star at Duke who also played 97 college games as a middle infielder — and a good one — it’s also just plain a lot of fun. As much as Stroman enjoys physical activities such as swimming and pilates, nothing beats backhanding a screaming one-hopper and feeling like one of the position-player fellas.

“A lot of people in the game might not like it because you’ve got a pitcher out there taking ground balls and it’s kind of weird,” he said. “A lot of people are apprehensive about that for no reason. But this is me, man. It has always been my style. I think I got to the level where I’m at because I was a two-way [player]. If I was just some pitcher from high school, I never would’ve made it to this level.”

If the Cubs wanted him to stop, he might not listen.

“No one can tell me what to do at this point,” he said, “because I’ve been taking ground balls my whole life and I know my body better than anyone.”

And if the Cubs ever needed an emergency infielder, Stroman is “beyond sure” he could fulfill the task at a good-enough-for-big-league level.

“I honestly would put myself as one of the better infielders in the league,” he said. “I’m not kidding. You can ask anyone on this team. You could ask [Mets shortstop Francisco] Lindor. I don’t just say that. Second or short, I’m good, man, and I can pick it.”

One former big-leaguer who actually did play the infield for a living has watched Stroman take ground balls many times.

Is it really possible that Stroman is equal to the real thing?

“Seriously?” the former player said, smiling wryly. “I mean, he’s good for a pitcher.”

Stroman might take that as an insult. For the record, he also claims to be one of the fastest Cubs and insists he could help the team as a pinch runner in key situations.

It’s called confidence, people, and the struggling Cubs need more of it.

It possibly is overconfidence, but so what?

Again, to the rest of the Cubs: Be more like Stro. Think bigger. Follow the man.

At this point, how much could it hurt?

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