CINCINNATI — In the top of the eighth inning as Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell strolled out to the mound to take out his reliever, the first of multiple loud “Let’s go Cubs!” chants rang out through Great American Ball Park. The seven-spot the team was in the middle of putting up that frame had the visiting fans on their feet as they cheered on the Chicago Cubs during their 15-7 win to split four in Cincinnati.
Starter Jameson Taillon had already exited the game and was getting treatment in the trainer’s room during the Cubs’ outpouring of offense. Facedown on a table, Taillon couldn’t see the team taking the lead and then continuing to tack on runs, but he could hear the road crowd roaring, letting him know good things were happening.
“It’s always nice,” manager David Ross said. “Cubs nation has always been good here. I remember being a Reds player here and they travel and it felt like an away game some days here. It’s felt that way no matter what here even when we haven’t been as competitive. They travel, they show up here especially. A really good environment for us, a good win.”
After consecutive nights during which the bullpen failed to hold a one-run lead with the offense unable to back up eight innings of strong pitching, the team needed a win like Sunday’s. Fans nearing the ledge and questioning everything about the team after a pair of punches to the gut needed reason to cheer.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 3, 2023
With their next seven games against two teams — San Francisco and Arizona — chasing them in the wild-card race, making sure they didn’t lose three of four to another playoff contender and return home desperate for wins felt important.
“I think the main thing I take away from this, you lose this one today, you’re not feeling so good about every game just being so important,” Ross said. “They have been (important) for a while now. It’s just every day now. We’ve got (less than) a month of the season. We’re in control of our destiny. They’re all important right now. Try not to emphasize (one) too much, but today’s win was big.”
Taillon struggled early but settled down after giving up three homers in the first two innings, getting through 5 2/3 innings. With a bullpen running on fumes, Ross was able to avoid his highest-leverage relievers thanks to that big eighth inning and 1 1/3 innings of work from Daniel Palencia before it.
“To be able to break out and have a nice big inning, we haven’t had that in probably a week or more,” Ian Happ said. “We’ve been putting a lot of stress on the back-end (bullpen) guys. So for us as an offense to be able to do that was huge.”
Most importantly, an offense that had been a bit quiet over the last week woke up when the team needed it most. Seven starters had multi-hit games and both Happ and Cody Bellinger stayed hot, the latter hitting a solo homer and Happ driving in four, including a big two-out RBI single in the seventh to tie the game at five.
But it was the struggling position players finally putting together strong at-bats that may pay off the biggest down the stretch. Dansby Swanson, who entered the day with a 33 wRC+ in his last 99 plate appearances, went 2-for-5 with a double and started the Cubs’ big eighth with a leadoff single. Jeimer Candelario reached base twice, including delivering a home run for the second consecutive game. He’d been in a 9-for-62 slump before Saturday’s home run.
“That’s 162, you’re going to need different guys at different times,” Happ said. “It’s pretty rare that everybody is rolling at the same time. When we were rolling coming out of the break there, I was one of the guys trying to get on base to let everybody else do their jobs. That’s how it goes. Guys are going to have one- or two-week stretches where it’s tough. That’s the good part about this lineup, the fact we’re so deep so different parts of the lineup can pick each other up from day to day.”
Happ struggled for a few weeks to start August, slashing .180/.219/.295 from Aug. 6-23 and failing to take walks (4.7 percent) like he normally does. Since then he’s slashing .357/.500/.714 with three home runs and six doubles. Mike Tauchman was in a deep funk as well with a 24 wRC+ over his last 68 plate appearances. On Sunday, he went 4-for-6 with a double, three RBIs and three runs scored.
“It feels great,” Tauchman said. “There’s ups and downs to a season. You try to stay consistent as best you can, but when it’s not going well you feel it and you want to contribute. That goes for everybody in all aspects. There’s good days, bad days, just OK days and you just try to put everything in perspective, keep working and try not to overreact to things. It’s easier said than done.”
Even with a bullpen game mixed in, Marcus Stroman out, Drew Smyly moved to the bullpen and Taillon still searching to find his July and early August magic, the rotation has a strong 2.70 ERA over the last 12 games. The bullpen needs more rest and a healthy Michael Fulmer and consistency from non-core members would help as well. And if the offense can carry what it did Sunday into the rest of the week, that would be a nice boon for a week that could be critical for a team that’s 3 1/2 games out of first place and 2 1/2 games up in the wild-card race.
“When we get back, we have a tough week coming up ahead with two good teams coming in that are right in it, too, just like we are,” Tauchman said. “Just try to keep the momentum going. I think confidence is contagious and I think run scoring is contagious, so we’ll just try to keep that going.”
(Photo of Seiya Suzuki after scoring a run: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)