CHICAGO -- To a man, manager David Ross and the Cubs have spent the past three days insisting their weekend set against the MLB-best Braves was no more significant than any other series on the schedule.
“I put a script in their lineup every day,” Ross quipped ahead of Sunday’s finale, “just so we're all on the same page.”
Regardless of their front-facing feelings on it, there’s no getting past the impact this series had in capping off a triumphant homestand for the Cubs. Chicago came from behind twice in a 6-4 win at Wrigley Field to complete a dominant week with a series victory over the vaunted Braves.
“It was a great homestand,” said Mike Tauchman, who threw out Ronald Acuña Jr. at home to prevent a run in the fifth. “I think it's no secret, the thought across the league is that the National League is running through the Braves right now. It's a really good team over there. For us to be able to get a series win against them, it’s evidence that if we execute the way that we can, if we play baseball the way that we can, we can compete with anybody.”
Said thought may have been scoffed at on June 8. Back then, this same Cubs team found itself 10 games below .500 and 7 1/2 games out of first place. A rocky West Coast trip seemed to spell disaster for the rest of the season ahead.
Nearly two months later, after winning 10 of 11 during a July stretch that prevented a Trade Deadline yard sale, those same Cubs would find themselves in the playoffs if the season ended on Sunday. Chicago is now clinging to the third and final Wild Card spot and is 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central.
“Momentum is a powerful thing,” Ross said. “When you play well, and then you get the backing of the front office, I think that helps the momentum. That helps the confidence and helps belief. When you're winning, you just start to expect to win and find a way. The focus just ticks up a little bit more.”
Yet another example of that was provided on Sunday afternoon. The Cubs quickly erased an early 2-0 hole in the third after Dansby Swanson followed Ian Happ’s RBI fielder’s choice with a bases-loaded walk against former teammate Charlie Morton. A three-run fifth -- featuring an RBI double from Cody Bellinger and RBI singles from Happ and Jeimer Candelario -- gave Chicago the lead for good.
Cubs lefty Justin Steele did what he could to quiet an intimidating Braves lineup, striking out seven on a season-high 110 pitches over 5 1/3 innings. He held Atlanta to four runs (three earned), the loudest of which came on Matt Olson’s 453-foot two-run blast in the third. Steele exited in the sixth after loading the bases with one out, but reliever Michael Fulmer whiffed Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley to escape the jam.
“I’m just glad I can come through for the team,” Fulmer said. “In a game like this, and the way this team’s been playing, it’s been unbelievable. I feel like this is as close to a playoff atmosphere as I can imagine.”
The victory wrapped up a 5-2 homestand for the Cubs, a stretch in which they took three of four from the NL Central-rival Reds and proved they could go toe to toe with the 70-win Braves. Chicago outscored its opponents 60-42 over the seven games, with Friday’s 8-0 loss to Atlanta serving as the only true blemish in the run-differential department. The team has won six straight series overall, the first time that’s happened since May 14-June 2, 2021.
And while the Cubs may have been initially dismissive about the importance of this weekend’s series, the palpable buzz at Wrigley Field on Sunday begged to differ. The uproar from 39,015 fans as closer Adbert Alzolay secured his 10th straight save said it all -- this series mattered to the Cubs’ faithful.
But for Chicago, the job isn’t done just because the standings look much better than they did two months ago.
“That is a really good team we just played, it was a really good homestand we just had and I'm proud of that,” Ross said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do, there’s a lot of games. Fifty left, so there's a long way to go.”