Locked in a dogfight at the top of the Central Division, the Cubs got a well-timed respite from the major-league schedule: Seven consecutive games against a couple of last-place teams.
Or did they?
“It doesn’t matter because we’ve earned it where everybody is going to play their best games against teams like us,” right fielder Jason Heyward said before the Cubs fell to the Padres 6-1 on an idyllic Thursday night at Wrigley Field. “It’s not easy because you’re getting better competition all the way around, and better competition means it’s not as easy to come out on the winning side. But as far as that goes, we wouldn’t have it any other way. You want to win the World Series, so you want everything that comes with that.”
The Padres, who have the worst record in the National League at 43-68, proved Heyward’s point. Behind stellar pitching from starter Robbie Erlin and a three-run home run from Austin Hedges — part of a 15-hit attack — the Padres took the opener of the four-game series.
“Those guys came to play, they weren’t giving away at-bats,” said Cubs starter Mike Montgomery, who was solid in 5⅓ innings, yielding a run and seven hits with a walk and two strikeouts. “They were taking good pitches, and they hit a lot of good pitches. You can’t take anybody lightly.
“I was talking to [Eric] Hosmer at first base … and he was like, ‘I love playing here, this place is awesome.’ When guys come here, they definitely aren’t taking any plays off.”
Cubs bats took the night off as they were held to a combined three hits by Erlin (five innings, two hits, one earned run, one walk and four strikeouts) and four relievers.
The only run the Cubs managed came when Willson Contreras made an acrobatic slide at home on a fielder’s choice groundout by Montgomery to elude the tag by Hedges in the fifth inning. That opened the scoring, but the Padres closed it with six unanswered runs, including Hedges’ homer into the left-field stands off reliever Jesse Chavez.
“They swung the bats really well,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Give them credit. They just beat us up pretty good.”
Whether the Cubs hold off the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals in the Central remains to be seen, but if Maddon has anything to say about it, taking their collective foot off the gas against struggling teams won’t be an issue.
“You shouldn’t have to play the 1927 Yankees to get up for the game,” Maddon said. “You should be able to show up as professionals and realize how these games matter and that you just can’t take anybody or anything for granted.
“I can’t deny that I’ve seen us play maybe to the level of our competition, and it’s probably happened this year at some point. But … I’m in the dugout, I listen and I watch them and that’s not part of where we’re at right now. I think we’re treating everything with a sameness that’s good.”
After the Padres leave town, the Cubs will travel to Kansas City to face the Royals, who have the second-worst record in the American League at 34-74 and are dead-last in the AL Central. If the Cubs were ever to look past teams, it would be the Padres and Royals.
“It’s something to guard against, I cannot deny that,” Maddon said. “But I want to believe we’re getting past that.”