When the Cubs arrived at Citi Field to open a three-game series against the Mets on Tuesday, they were a little back on their heels after five straight losses. Less than 72 hours later, after completing a sweep with a 6-1 win over a team they have been jockeying with for the National League's second Wild Card opening, everything seemed different.
In part, that's just baseball. At the same time, every team has to overcome obstacles and show the ability to bounce back from adversity.
"We knew we had to pick it up. Offensively and defensively. It was just something we had to make a decision [about] coming here. Were we up to the challenge?" noted starter Jake Arrieta, who helped set the tone with eight strong innings and then answered his own question. "We came out and pitched extremely well, swung the bats just enough and played really good defense."
If this does, in fact, turn out to be a turning point, manager Joe Maddon's decision to hire a magician to loosen up his players before the series opener will be securely woven into the fabric of franchise history. It could even become the antidote to billy goats and black cats.
More tangibly, the Cubs won because their pitching gave up a total of one run in the three games.
"I can't sit here and tell you that we just bludgeoned them," Maddon said, noting that the first two victories were by scores of 1-0 and 2-0.
That can also be viewed as a promising sign, however. The Cubs have played more one-run games (32) and have won more of them (19) than any team in baseball. And there's at least one good reason to believe that this isn't some sort of fluke that will even out in the second half. Teams that win close games tend to have strong bullpens. Since May 23, Cubs relievers have a 1.60 ERA.
"The bullpen, early on, we were kind of just trying to figure everybody out. We're getting to the point now where we have a better understanding of what everybody's about. And they're gaining confidence," Maddon said.
The manager then brought the conversation back to the mental aspect of the game. The Cubs opened this trip by being swept by the Cardinals at Busch Stadium after losing the series opener, 3-2, in extra innings. They lost the next two by a combined score of 12-2.
"That first game dictated a lot. I thought we had a chance to win that first game. If you do, possibly those other two play differently. But we did not. We lost," he said.
That's what added some gravitas to playing the Mets, who at the time had won four straight and had been dominant -- 29-11 -- at home. And, again, the first game may have set the tone. Chicago won each game by a progressively larger margin.
"They had been playing well. That's a booster for us. Obviously, I never doubted [the character of the team]. I never doubt the resolve of our guys. It's just a matter that we had a hard time there. We had a tough time in St. Louis," Maddon said.
"Then you come in here and you face an outstanding pitching staff and are able to get back to a .500 road trip. That's pretty outstanding after the beginning. It is what it is. It's the ebb and flow of the season. You try to support your guys. You try to do the right thing on a daily basis. I do. They do. And that's how this whole thing works."
Said Arrieta: "I think the only thing we need to do is use this series for positive reinforcement. Letting everybody in here know that we can beat anybody. We can pitch with anybody. We can swing the bats. Our defense can play lights out. We just have to bring that night in and night out."
Now the Cubs go back to the Friendly Confines, where they'll play 10 straight against the Marlins, Cardinals and White Sox leading up to the All-Star break. They could get Jorge Soler back from the disabled list soon.
It was nearing midnight when a somber team departed Busch Stadium on Sunday after losing again, this time on national television. Late Thursday afternoon, music blasted in the clubhouse, and there were smiles all around.
They've been tested before. They will be again. But with grit, great pitching -- and maybe just a little bit of magic -- the Cubs' development took another step forward this week at Citi Field.