For a guy who participated in “Dancing With the Stars,” Chicago Cubs manager David Ross has no real feel for Hollywood endings.
Making his major-league debut off the bench Monday night at Coors Field in Colorado, top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong came to the plate with a runner on first and no outs in the ninth inning, after the Cubs had taken a one-run lead over the Rockies.
Cubs fans, who could recall Willson Contreras and Christopher Morel homering in their first major-league at-bats, were hoping for some similar heroics from the most hyped rookie since Kris Bryant, hitting in the hitter-friendly ballpark.
Then Crow-Armstrong laid down a sacrifice bunt. The Cubs failed to score an insurance run but escaped with a one-run win. Crow-Armstrong would have to wait another day to show us what the hype is all about. Ross presumably slept well.
These final 17 games will be about whether the Cubs can avoid the agitating offensive shutdowns that have cropped up from time to time, including last weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But it will also be about how Ross handles his team down the stretch.
He could wind up National League Manager of the Year if the Cubs make it to the postseason. He could be savaged on social media if they don’t.
Anything is possible in this season where nothing has made much sense.
The Cubs face a couple of potential handicaps as they begin the final stretch of this strange but beguiling season. The first was losing closer Adbert Alzolay to the injured list with a right forearm strain, which forced Ross to audible with his bullpen after the threesome of Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Alzolay were instrumental in the team’s turnaround in late June.
Not surprisingly, Ross won’t name a closer, though Merryweather and Leiter would both merit a look.
On Monday he turned to Michael Fulmer, who recovered from a shaky start in his return from the IL, notching the save in the 5-4 comeback win as Leiter warmed up in the bullpen. It was a return to the original plan of Fulmer being the primary closer.
Ross never announced a closer in spring training, but Fulmer, with help from Brad Boxberger, was supposed to be the plan. It didn’t work.
“I love mapping things out in my head before the game, but rarely does it play out the way I want,” Ross said after Fulmer blew a save in late April.
The plan that wasn’t a plan was abandoned after Fulmer’s April struggles, opening the door to Alzolay’s breakthrough season. Fulmer proved more effective in a sixth- or seventh-inning role, while Boxberger disappeared on the IL on May 15 with a right forearm strain, only returning last week.
President Jed Hoyer doubled down on the semi-youth movement Monday with the addition of top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong, who assuredly won’t be hidden on the bench as Alexander Canario was during his 10-day call-up.
Ross said last week Canario’s time on the bench was a good lesson because he was “being around winners and a winning team.” But Canario had no starts and only one pinch-hitting appearance.
“The future is bright for a lot of our minor leaguers that are coming up,” Ross said. “But now is not the time to get those guys at-bats.”
Sure. But why put them on the roster in a pennant race?
Crow-Armstrong — or simply “PCA,” as Marquee Sports Network insists we call him — is a different breed. His lack of experience won’t keep him from playing, and the Cubs obviously need a quality left-handed bat. Jeimer Candelario’s recent slump and move to the 10-day IL should allow Ross to give Crow-Armstrong regular starts in center, with Cody Bellinger at first base. But we’ll see.
The Cubs went into Tuesday’s game in Colorado with a 2-game cushion over the Diamondbacks in the wild-card chase, and a 3 1/2 game lead over the next two closest pursuers, the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins.
The wild card appears to be their best chance of getting in, and the Cubs have played just good enough in September (7-5) to avoid dropping from the second spot. They can still catch the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, but it’s looking more doubtful by the day.
The Brewers won 15 of their last 21 games entering Tuesday and posted a 2.86 ERA over the first 10 games in September. Corbin Burnes and two relievers combined for 10 no-hit innings in Yankee Stadium on Sunday in what turned into a 13-inning loss, and Brandon Woodruff has a 2.22 ERA in seven starts since his return from the IL in August.
The Cubs pulled to within 1 1/2 games of the Brewers before losing three straight to the Diamondbacks, thanks to an offensive shutdown, the wind blowing in at Wrigley Field and some stellar defense by Arizona. Would having a bat like Crow-Armstrong off the bench against the Diamondbacks have helped in any of those one-run losses over the weekend?
We’ll never know. It’s like wondering whether the demotion of Christopher Morel to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training, while retaining a third catcher who was soon jettisoned, was a decision that might have cost the Cubs a win or two early in the season.
If the Cubs enter the final series of the regular season in Milwaukee within one game of first place, they’ll have a realistic shot. They’re 5-5 against the Brewers, so a tie with them and a win in the season series would give them the tiebreaker for the NL Central title.
But what if Ross had to use ace Justin Steele to try and clinch the division in the final game, meaning home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series? Would it be worth losing Steele for a Game 1 of the Wild Card Series if the Cubs already have clinched a wild-card spot?
It’s shaping up to be a crazy ending, and that’s not even counting the possible return of Marcus Stroman from his mysterious rib injury.
For the ’23 Cubs, it’s Hollywood or bust.