The basic plot of 1989’s Major League is team ownership giving up on fielding a competitive squad and rooting for the team to lose. The players are galvanized by the lack of faith and go on to win their division.
It’s too early to tell, but the Cubs might be headed for a similar path.
As May comes to a close, they are six games above .500 and a half game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central lead. This month, they have won every series minus a two-game set against the Cleveland Indians. That includes sweeps of the Dodgers and Pirates.
But as they prepare to host the San Diego Padres for three games beginning on Memorial Day, the Cubs will kick of a June schedule that will assuredly test if this team is for real.
“Without getting too far ahead, you got the best team coming in here next and playing a high level of baseball too,” Cubs manager David Ross told reporters Sunday.
The three games against the Padres in Chicago are followed by a trip through San Francisco and San Diego, where two of the best teams in the National League await. Historically, west coast trips have been a challenge for the Cubs.
After that, they return home briefly from June 11-13 to play division rival St. Louis, only to hit the road again and play the Mets for four games in New York. The Cubs are among the most banged-up teams in baseball, rivaled only be the Mets. But, like the Cubs, the Mets keep winning in spite of a lengthy list of injured players.
“I would say we’re not at full strength,” Ross said. “So we’re not going to take a full look at can we compete with this team or not without being fully healthy. It’ll be a good test for us.”
After their trip to New York, the Cubs come back home June 18-22 to face the Miami Marlins and Indians. That might be the easiest chunk of the month’s schedule. The Cubs will close out June with a swing through Los Angeles to face the Dodgers and then through Milwaukee for their always-tough divisional opponent Brewers.
If, by the end of all of this, the Cubs are still in contention for the division, they will have made a case for a renewed sense of faith from the front office. By trading Cy Young runner up Yu Darvish in the offseason, Cubs brass more or less indicated that they were not looking to win in 2021.
Along with the demanding June schedule, injuries to key players might trip up the Cubs’ efforts to win despite all that’s stacked against them. Over the weekend, infielder David Bote dislocated his shoulder, and he is likely sidelined for at least several weeks. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is battling back issues, and that’s forced usual third baseman Kris Bryant to play out of position. Outfielders Jason Heyward and Jake Marisnick both have hamstring strains with no clear date for return. Utilityman Matt Duffy has a strained lower back, and young sensation Nico Hoerner is dealing with a balky hamstring too.
If that’s not enough, Monday starter Trevor Williams needed an appendectomy Sunday morning, so the Cubs are going with Starter TBD as the Padres come to town.
All the same, the Cubs regulars have a lot of faith in the guys called upon to step in for the injured.
“We’ve consistently shown the ability to pick up the slack with guys being called up and filling in in big situations,” Jake Arrieta told reporters Sunday. “I think we’re going do just fine. We’ve shown the ability to do that this past month or so and hopefully we can keep that going.”
The Cubs have had to reach into the third rung of the depth chart in some places, and while it’s worked against teams like the Tigers, Pirates, and Reds in May, games against the Padres, Dodgers, Giants, and Mets will put that to the test.
“I don’t think that we should paint a picture whether we sweep all these teams or they sweep us or we split,” Ross said. “I don’t think it’s a real indicative measure of where we can and can’t be in the end of the season and into the playoffs.”