The mystery ailment to Seiya Suzuki remained a secret Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, though the Chicago Cubs right fielder was back in the starting lineup for the rain-delayed 11-3 rout of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“My body feels really good,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “These past couple days I’ve just been dreaming. … I’ve been having those dreams of getting bullied. But I feel like I’m back.”
That also sounded like a perfect explanation for what has been ailing the Cubs, who returned from a 4-6 West Coast trip nine games under .500 after starting the season 12-7.
Maybe it all has been just a bad dream, and the Cubs suddenly will wake up against the division-leading Pirates, whom they play five times in their next eight games in home-and-away series.
The Cubs have been pushed around since their hot start, posting a .362 winning percentage (17-30) and threatening to fall into sellers at the trade deadline for the third straight season under President Jed Hoyer.
Can they punch back, or is this group destined to join the long list of Cubs teams that teased fans with a nice start only to show their true colors by the time the ivy bloomed?
Now is a good time to find out. Taking five of six from the Pirates would put them right back in the National League Central race, while losing both series could put them into a deep sleep and force Hoyer to consider moving players such as Marcus Stroman, Cody Bellinger, Drew Smyly and other veterans.
Only two months ago Hoyer said the Cubs were “on the front edge of where we want to be.” If this is the front edge, something is wrong.
“Our biggest thing, and I would think everyone would agree with this, is like, we have to continue building and finding our identity as a group because that’s going to pay us the biggest dividends,” shortstop Dansby Swanson told me Tuesday.
“Playing our version of baseball every day, no matter who we’re playing, is what we need. We did that in San Fran. We played well the first two days there. Slowly but surely we’re finding our rhythm.”
The Cubs had played 40% of their season already. Shouldn’t they have found their identity by now?
“For sure,” he said. “But when I say that it’s like continue to build on what winning baseball looks like and how we are cultivating that as a group, right? We’re slowly but surely starting to find that and understand roles and where guys are best suited. You’ve seen some of the differences in lineup changes and trying to get the right pieces in place because we’ve got a lot of really good players here.”
Manager David Ross used a set top of the lineup for most of the first two months, with Nico Hoerner, Swanson, Ian Happ and Suzuki, respectively, as his Nos. 1-4 hitters. Journeyman Mike Tauchman was back in the leadoff spot Tuesday, while Hoerner dropped to second, Happ to the cleanup spot and Swanson back down to the No. 5 hole.
Individually, Hoerner, Swanson, Suzuki and Happ have put up respectable numbers and been the least of Ross’ problems. But he had to try something new, and Swanson said he’s comfortable batting anywhere.
“If it jump-starts us one way or another,” he said.
Ross suggested this Pirates series was no different from any other, repeating his mantra from the last, oh, three years.
“We need to play our best brand of baseball,” he said, adding “not one game is more important to me than the next.”
There was some good news to report Tuesday. Justin Steele, second to Stroman among National League ERA leaders, could return from the injured list during the weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles. And Bellinger, out since May 16 with a bruised left knee, was scheduled to begin his rehab stint Tuesday night at Triple-A Iowa, playing first base. While Bellinger’s Gold Glove-caliber defense in center was one of the reasons for the good start, Ross sounded as if he’s OK with leaving Tauchman in center and sticking Bellinger at first when he’s ready to return.
“Tauchman is swinging the bat really well and held down center field well,” Ross said. “Just trying to find the best lineup whenever Belli gets back. He’s pretty darn good at first base and has been. Having another option over the makes sense. … First-base production hasn’t been one of our strengths this year. Got to get somebody going over there.”
That means Matt Mervis, the highly touted prospect hitting .170 since his mid-May call-up, might be playing on borrowed time. Cubs first basemen — specifically Mervis, Trey Mancini and the recently released Eric Hosmer — entered Tuesday ranked third worst among major-league teams with a combined .329 slugging percentage.
Except for a brief surge from Frank Schwindel in the final two months of 2021, the position has been a black hole since the Cubs dealt Anthony Rizzo to the New York Yankees two years ago. Ross called Mervis a young player “trying to find his way in the major leagues,” adding “the bats have been fine.”
In other moves Tuesday, the Cubs recalled Iowa infielder Miles Mastrobuoni, who hit .169 in his previous two stints, and selected the contract of Iowa left-hander Anthony Kay. Brandon Hughes was placed on the 15-day IL with left knee inflammation, and Jeremiah Estrada was optioned to Iowa. Nick Burdi, on the 15-day IL with appendicitis, was transferred to the 60-day IL to make room for Kay on the 40-man roster.
A lingering rainstorm prevented the Cubs-Pirates game from starting on time and delayed Suzuki’s return from whatever vague aliment kept him on the bench in San Francisco.
“I’m hoping I can get some good dreams in tonight,” Suzuki said.
After watching the nightmarish stretch of baseball since late April, Cubs fans could relate.