'Ready to roll': Bellinger returns as Cubs complete 1st home sweep of season

June 16th, 2023

CHICAGO -- After being pushed in workouts in Arizona and then testing things out in two rehab appearances with Triple-A Iowa this week, had some pretty clear feedback for the Cubs.

“I just told them I was ready to roll,” Bellinger said.

A photo of Bellinger landed on social media via awaiting fans when he arrived at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon with a smile and his blue hat spun around backwards. It was an added dose of energy for a Chicago squad that had already captured a hint of momentum, and the Cubs held that feeling through a 7-2 victory over the Pirates.

The Cubs have been searching for weeks for some good vibes, and they arrived in surplus in this crucial series. Bellinger was back. spun his MLB-best 13th quality start. Ian Happ flirted with the Cubs’ first cycle since 1993. And the awakened lineup (28 runs in three games) led the North Siders to their first sweep at home this year.

“There’s nobody in the league we can’t play with,” said Stroman, who leads the National League with a 2.45 ERA after his latest six-inning effort. “It’s just a matter of putting wins together.”

And three wins against Pittsburgh were important.

With the sweep -- the first in six attempts at the Friendly Confines this season for the Cubs -- Chicago trimmed its deficit to 3 1/2 games behind the NL Central-leading Pirates. That matters, because the Cubs’ front office is in evaluation mode, weighing playoff odds in a wide-open division against a 31-37 record with the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline inching closer.

One sustained run of winning could be what it takes to claim the division crown this season, and the Cubs have a heartbeat with five W’s in six games. The last time Chicago won five out of six was April 14-19, when the offense was firing on all cylinders and all the woes of May had yet to bubble to the surface.

And who was a driving force back in April? Bellinger.

“Belli’s a big part of the team,” Cubs designated hitter Christopher Morel said via team translator Fredy Quevedo. “Just like a car doesn’t run without a motor, Belli definitely is that motor for our team. He’s very big and important for us.”

Bellinger landed on the 10-day injured list in the wake of a leaping catch in center on May 15 in Houston. He robbed Kyle Tucker with a spectacular grab, but landed awkwardly. Bellinger did not believe the issue was serious after that game, but the bone bruise was deep and the pain persisted.

After what Bellinger called a “long, boring” process of waiting for the bruise to heal so he could ramp up his activity, he turned a corner. Even before his grueling running progression and two-game rehab assignment with the I-Cubs, Bellinger was trying to keep himself ready.

“Day one,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “the knee's hurt and he's in the cage hitting off the machine and taking flips in a chair, because he wanted to swing.”

In Thursday’s win, Bellinger joined the hit parade with a go-ahead RBI in a five-run fifth inning. He pulled a pitch into right field, turned on that motor Morel mentioned and pulled off a hustle double. The knee looked just fine.

“Pushing the envelope there,” Ross said, “going into second, running right into the guy's face, is pretty spectacular in my opinion. Love that. Love that brand of baseball.”

While Bellinger was out, Mike Tauchman came up from Triple-A Iowa and held things down in center. Tauchman has hit at a .296 clip with a .414 on-base percentage through 24 games, working his way into the leadoff spot. He has also played a solid center field, making a handful of eye-opening catches along the way.

The way Tauchman has impressed, combined with the struggles of rookie first baseman Matt Mervis (.531 OPS in 27 games), led the Cubs down a surprising path. To get Bellinger back to the Majors faster, he picked up his first baseman’s glove and returned to a spot he played previously with the Dodgers.

“The talent’s there,” Bellinger said of Mervis. “He’ll be just fine.”

That move showed that the Cubs’ focus is very much on winning as much as possible right now, as opposed to the development-led approach of the past two rebuilding years. And the Cubs know this is a critical section of the schedule to set the course for the next three-plus months.

Like Bellinger, the Cubs are hoping to be “ready to roll.”

“It's never not 'go time' in the Major Leagues for me,” Ross said. “I think the players would probably reiterate that.”