When the Bucs last played in Chicago, on the second day of summer, the Cubs looked a whole lot different than they do now. The lineup that took the field Friday afternoon included only two players who were in the Major Leagues at the start of the season: third baseman Luis Valbuena and catcher John Baker.
And as has been the case for about three weeks now, the reinforcements have been holding their own just fine, thank you.
Beginning with the promotion of Arismendy Alcantara on July 9, when Darwin Barney left on paternity leave, the Cubs have been steadily infusing prospects from their highly-regarded farm system into manager Rick Renteria's lineup.
The results have been so promising that Wednesday night's game against the Brewers was the second-highest rated game on WGN-TV this season.
Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Alcantara have combined to deliver 18 home runs and 47 RBIs in 362 Major League at-bats. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks, a Dartmouth product acquired from the Rangers who might be the next Orel Hershiser, has gone 6-1 with a 2.02 ERA in 10 starts and earned National League Rookie of the Month honors in August.
And, yes, the Cubs have just scratched the surface of the young talent that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of player development Jason McLeod have been assembling since they arrived three years ago.
They could have also called up third baseman Kris Bryant, who seems poised to follow in the footsteps of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Instead, they opted to leave the third baseman at Triple-A Iowa, most likely delaying his free agency from the fall of 2020 to '21.
Bryant, who was the Arizona Fall League's Most Valuable Player Award winner a year ago, has been a beast since he arrived from the University of San Diego as the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft. He hit .325 with 43 homers (tops in the Minors), 110 RBIs and a 1.098 OPS in 138 games between Double-A and Triple-A this year, but Epstein didn't give him a roster spot.
That's one reason for the Pirates and the Cubs' other opponents -- including the Cardinals, Dodgers and Brewers -- to count their blessings.
By the time Bryant does get to Wrigley Field -- by next June, if not on Opening Day -- he might find something Cubs fans haven't experienced since 2009: a winning team.
When Epstein unexpectedly promoted Baez on Aug. 5, the Cubs were 47-63. Baez homered against the Rockies in his debut -- as Soler would against the Reds on Aug. 27 -- and just like that, they became a lot more interesting.
Yes, Baez's at-bats are adventures. He's got Gary Sheffield's bat speed without the ability to make consistent contact (so far, anyway) and looks bad at the plate more than any hitter this side of Justin Verlander. But the ball flies off Baez's bat when he makes contact, and he's as alert as anyone on the field. The Cubs have been fine since Baez shifted from second base to shortstop after Starlin Castro sprained his ankle, which could keep him out all year.
Chicago is playing its best baseball of the season in the past three weeks, going 12-6 with a roster that has become the youngest in the Major Leagues (26.5 average age).
"There's no question that they're a different team now," Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. "You always want to have fresh legs late in the season, and they've certainly got those in abundance.'
Thanks largely to the play of Soler and a bunt single by Alcantara -- pushed perfectly past Bucs starter Vance Worley -- the Cubs were tied with the Pirates, 3-3, with one out in the top of the seventh inning on Friday. The game was suspended after a second rain delay, with forecasts showing another storm in the making for Friday night, and it will be resumed on Saturday.
Soler has been positively on fire since his promotion from Iowa -- well, actually before his promotion. Including his past four games for the I-Cubs, the 22-year-old Cuban has gone 24-for-44 with six homers, 13 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs over his last 12 games. Soler has also flashed plus speed on the bases and a strong arm.
Soler went almost all the way to the right-field corner to field a drive by Jose Tabata in the sixth inning on Friday, then threw a strike to Baez to nail Tabata sliding into second base. That play helped preserve a tie that he had contributed to with a sacrifice fly off Worley in the third, after Valbuena was robbed of an RBI when his opposite-field drive one-hopped into the left-field ivy, where it was never seen again.
Second baseman Logan Watkins, another newcomer getting a chance to play with Castro sidelined, made an important play in the field in the fifth inning. Andrew McCutchen had stolen second base after a leadoff single, but he slid awkwardly, coming off the bag. Watkins kept the tag on him for an out -- a rookie getting the best of the reigning NL MVP Award winner.
These are moments the Cubs will hold onto into the offseason. In the meantime, they hope to keep doing what they've been doing throughout September -- making life uncomfortable for contenders.