Trip to St. Louis provides opportunity, perspective for Cubs as trade deadline nears

The Cubs opened a four-game series with a 10-3 victory.

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The Cubs’ Mike Tauchman watches his solo home run against the Cardinals during the sixth inning on Thursday.

The Cubs’ Mike Tauchman watches his solo home run against the Cardinals during the sixth inning on Thursday.

Scott Kane/AP

ST. LOUIS — About this time a year ago, Cubs manager David Ross walked into the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium and delivered the news to left fielder Ian Happ and catcher Willson Contreras that they hadn’t been traded.

“It feels different,” Ross said Thursday, back in the visiting dugout. “Definitely feels good coming to the park and it’s not these other narratives. But I think the good thing about this group here, they’ve proven [lately that] playing good baseball and fighting each and every pitch and going out and winning baseball games is always the goal.”

Now, Contreras is in the opposite dugout, Happ is signed to a three-year extension running through 2026, and the Cubs are making a closing argument for adding at the trade deadline. They opened a four-game series against the Cardinals with a 10-3 victory Thursday. And even if they split with the Cardinals, who are in fourth place in the division, they’ll enter the final days before the Aug. 1 deadline one game below .500. At that point, the decision will be out of the players’ hands.

In and of itself, .500 isn’t a magic number.

“I don’t think 51-51 is going to be like, ‘Wow,’ ” Happ said before the game. “That means there’s 60 games left. So we’re worried about it at the end of September.”

The Cubs’ underlying numbers — for example, the best run differential in the division by a lot — paint a promising picture. But their proximity to a winning record reveals something even bigger about their upside over the course of a whole season.

“We’ve talked about this for 12 years,” team president Jed Hoyer said earlier this month. “You have to evaluate your team, and you also have to evaluate the standings. They’re two different evaluations. And we need to get close to .500.”

Over the last week, the Cubs have done that and chipped away at their deficit. Questions to players have shifted from “Are you worried you or your teammates will be traded?” to “What if the front office brings in reinforcements?”

Happ thinks back to 2017, when the Cubs acquired left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox before the trade deadline. Yes, they gave up prospects Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez as part of the trade package to get him, which makes the trade look lopsided in retrospect. But the move, in Happ’s words, “injected some confidence” into the team. They went on a six-game winning streak.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Cubs’ front office hadn’t telegraphed their plan — and probably for good reason. As they headed into the London Series last month, they seemed like a team that would be adding. But then they hit a skid. Then, when they looked close to dropping out of the race, they surged.

Four games against the Cardinals and a softer second-half schedule work in their favor.

“No one has put an ultimatum on us in any way,” veteran catcher Yan Gomes told the Sun-Times. “But I feel like the outside noise will put an ultimatum on us, and we started playing better. So maybe that kind of motivation helps us.”

Said second baseman Nico Hoerner: “[The deadline] is a real factor, and it’s something we’re all aware of. And I think we’ve handled it in a pretty mature way of controlling our end of it day by day. We’re giving it absolutely our all. And I would love to play with this group for an extended period and see what that looks like.”

By this time last year in St. Louis, the stakes on the field were lower. It was already clear the Cubs would be trading away big-league talent. The question was how much. Happ and Contreras received a rousing ovation when they finally emerged from the clubhouse after the deadline to stretch in left field.

“Things have turned out pretty well for me,” Happ remarked Thursday.

He’d been out on the field earlier, shagging fly balls and taking batting practice in 100-degree heat. He and his teammates had a pivotal series ahead.

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