CHICAGO -- Even as veteran players continue to be hit by injuries, the Chicago Cubs keep on winning. Backups have become starters and former minor leaguers are playing major roles. The Cubs might not be contending, but they’re doing a good job of preventing others from stepping on them and into the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of energy,” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks (6-1) said after beating the Milwaukee Brewers 6-2 Wednesday night. “It’s almost like we’re expecting to win more, I guess. We’re all just playing as best we can to kind of make our stamp.
“But at the same time, we won down in the minor leagues so we kind of have that bred into us -- that we need to win, that we want to win. It’s been a good mix so far, and it’s worked.”
Hendricks admittedly had “by far” his worst stuff on Wednesday since coming up to the majors. Even so, it translated into a two-run performance over 5 2/3 innings. The Cubs swept the Brewers at home for the first time since 2004, giving the baseball world another preview of what’s to come.
“With so many good players on one team, you walk around and play with a little bit more confidence, a little more swagger,” Cubs infielder Logan Watkins said. “We’re up here now, and nothing has really changed.”
That’s because when Triple-A Iowa was at full strength and producing earlier this season, they were nearly unbeatable. That team is basically in the majors now -- save for Kris Bryant -- and the winning has picked up again. And they’re doing it without Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who are both out with injuries. So others have to pick up the slack.
Watkins has been on fire (.414) since his recall from Triple-A, and now he’ll get more playing time with Castro sidelined with a high ankle sprain. Chris Valaika isn’t a household name, but he’s taking Rizzo’s spot at first base. He was in the minors with all the top prospects and sees the same thing everyone else does.
“Right now we’re playing like we should, and that outcome is showing,” Valaika said after homering in Wednesday’s game. “I think there are some really special people in this clubhouse that’s going to make this city proud.”
The competition for rosters spots and playing time in 2015 has begun. No longer are the Cubs employing bodies just to keep spots warm for better players. These are the better players, including Jorge Soler, whose two-run double helped him reached 10 RBIs to become just the second Cub to drive in double-digit runs in his first seven games. And Javier Baez, who’ll play shortstop in Castro’s absence, doubled and walked in the win.
“It gives us something to put our eyes on because they’re here,” manager Rick Renteria said of all the youth. “We’re using it to kind of get to know them a little more. That’s what I would say, we’re getting to know them. There’s a big trust factor being developed here, and they’re pulling for each other.”
This is the plan the Cubs’ front office envisioned from the get-go: A young group of talented players coming together with a winning mindset. It didn’t just happen all at once.
“I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minors,” Hendricks said. “Just getting us ready for this level.”
Big names and small are contributing to the Cubs’ success right now. This is where the seeds for winning get planted, from starter to role player alike.
“Every day you’re in a uniform you have an opportunity,” Valaika said. “It’s exciting with all the young guys up here. Hopefully we keep this going right into next year.”