‘Prioritizing winning’: What the Cubs are playing for in the 2nd half of a losing season

LOS ANGELES – Cubs lefty Drew Smyly sighed and in eight words summed up the reason for the tense silence in the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium.

“I think we’re all just sick of losing,” Smyly said.

To be fair, prior to this past weekend, the Cubs had won four straight 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 on Sunday they blew a five-run lead twice.

“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 league with 12, including a 10-inning loss to the Dodgers on Saturday, and they’ve gone 3-9 in those contests.

“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 club’s fate for this season appears to be set. The Cubs are positioned firmly in trade deadline seller territory – sitting at No. 4 in the National League Central with a 34-52 record – without a realistic shot at the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for.

“Regardless of standings, I think prioritizing winning is the only way to stay sane through those things,” shortstop Nico Hoerner said a couple 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, and 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 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 when he got to the big-leagues in 2017, he was surprised at how much pride the team took in going first to third or scoring from second base on a single. Joe Maddon, the manager at the time, 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 Cubs 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% opposed to 35%,’ just building that culture. Ross, he’s done a heck of a job doing that.”

The Cubs only have three players left on the roster from their 2016 championship team – Ross makes four. And Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward and Kyle Hendricks have all garnered praise for their influence on their younger teammates. But they’re not the Cubs’ only 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. Just last year Chris Martin and Smyly helped the Braves to a Fall Classic championship.

“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.”

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