With one week remaining in the 2020 season, the true magic number for the Chicago Cubs is still at zero.
That’s the number of positive COVID-19 tests from Cubs players, a perfect score for a perfectly imperfect season and a testament to their commitment to following MLB’s health and safety protocols.
The Cubs can take pride in that, especially knowing they did it while going through an anxiety-ridden, two-month grind that has them in prime position for the No. 2 or 3 seed in the National League postseason.
In a season that defied labeling, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
But one glaring deficiency they’ve battled from the outset is a consistent inability to hit — particularly at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ overall .226 batting average heading into Sunday night’s home finale against the Minnesota Twins was fourth-worst in the majors, and their .218 home average was better only than the Seattle Mariners’ .212 average at Safeco Field.
It’s an ongoing mystery that no one, including manager David Ross and President Theo Epstein, can explain.
This year’s group will finish with by far the lowest average in the ballpark’s 106-year history, a head-scratching problem that could doom the Cubs if it carries into the wild-card round.
For fans watching on TV, it’s almost incomprehensible. Even some of the worst teams in Cubs history have put up decent offensive seasons at Wrigley, making them tolerable in lean years. What makes it even more puzzling: Some of the worst offenders are Kris Bryant (.197, one home run, two RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.189, four homers, 11 RBIs), Javier Baez (.172, two homers, seven RBIs) and Kyle Schwarber (.176, five homers, 11 RBIs).
All but Schwarber have been All-Stars, while Bryant was National League MVP in 2016 and Baez finished second to the Milwaukee Brewers’ Christian Yelich in MVP voting two years ago.
The co-founders of Bryzzo Inc. met with Baez and Schwarber on Tuesday to discuss their collective woes in what Rizzo described as a “very organic” meeting.
“Rizz came to me and a few other guys in the lineup that weren’t really hot,” Baez said. “We talked about it. Obviously I was on the same page, but leaders know what they’re doing. It was just about us four, or us five, trying to make adjustments for the team, not for our numbers.
“We’re still going to struggle or not get the results, but at least we’re trying. We’re working on something.”
The Big Four of the Cubs lineup have accepted the fact this season isn’t going to look good on the back of their baseball cards. Bryant talked about “surrendering to what this season is,” knowing they can’t make up the numbers in such a short time.
“It’s a matter of accepting what is and having fun with it,” he said.
Rizzo said the meeting was therapeutic in nature.
“It’s easy to feel isolated,” he said. “No one in our clubhouse has felt that or has been acting that way. It’s just good to always talk about it and continue to talk about it together and be together on it.”
Rizzo noted Ian Happ, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward have “carried us the whole year,” and he said it was time for the four kings to pull their weight. They reminded each other how good they are in normal times — and how good they still can be in the postseason.
“Knowing when our whole lineup comes together, we’re really scary,” Rizzo said. “We’ve seen Kris carry our team for a long stretch. We’ve seen Schwarber do it. We’ve seen Javy do it, and myself. … A couple of us get hot and heat up at the right time, that’s what it’s all about.”
Misery loves company, the saying goes. At least the four Cubs players can be satisfied knowing the team has won without them making significant offensive contributions. It says a lot about the team’s pitching, of course, and the ability of Ross to get them to this point with so many key pieces in a season-long slump.
Baez, who is striking out in 33.5% of his at-bats with a .246 on-base percentage — the lowest of any qualified hitter — said the criticism doesn’t matter, “no matter what you say, no matter what the situation is.”
“It doesn’t bother us when somebody says something you don’t like,” he said. “We take it and we make the adjustment as (necessary).”
Back in spring training, Baez and Bryant were buoyant and confident, knowing they were among the few MLB players who could make upward of $250 million when they became free agents after 2021. Rizzo spoke excitedly about 2020 being a possible “last hurrah” for the survivors of the 2016 core, knowing they could all be on the block if the season went haywire.
Despite their seasons of discontent, they’ve remained upbeat and outwardly confident about their ability to snap out of it. In this first season of Zoom interviews, in which any struggling player can hide from the media by refusing to participate, they’ve all been available and accountable.
“My attitude doesn’t change,” Baez said. “Because I’m struggling, I’m not going to come in dragging my feet into the clubhouse. I’m the same guy every day. I’m a happy guy. No matter what happens in the game, when I get in the shower, I’m a normal person.”
Now with the regular season ending and their awful stat lines unavoidable, perhaps they can simply chalk it up to “2020,” as many of us do whenever something inexplicably goes wrong this year.
“When we look back on this season, it’s not going to be about your numbers,” Bryant said. “It’s going to be about how we came together as a group and got through something that was a crazy time, a crazy time that we’re living in.”
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