The Chicago Cubs don't want to think about it as taking advantage of another team's situation, but the evidence keeps mounting: While opponents struggle to deal with coronavirus-related issues, the first-place team in the NL Central standings continues to be a model for the league off the field while dominating the competition on it. The Cubs' 12-3 record is the best in baseball after a Tuesday/Wednesday sweep of the Cleveland Indians.
"I have a good team," Cubs manager David Ross said Wednesday after his squad's 7-2 victory. "We have good players. There is nothing to complain about because the talent is there, the character is there. The commitment, the focus, the energy, the work, all those things that seem easy and to bring every day, it's not -- especially in the environment we're dealing with now."
The Indians know that all too well, as they're the latest Cubs opponent to experience turmoil in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Is it a coincidence that the Indians lost both games to the Cubs after placing starting pitchers Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger on the restricted list for breaking team protocols related to COVID-19? After going 17 straight contests without giving up more than four runs, the Indians did so twice in a row to the Cubs, losing 7-1 and 7-2.
It's clear that Indians manager Terry Francona has a distraction on his hands.
"Whoever handles adjustments the best gives yourself the best chance to win," Francona said simply on Wednesday.
Count Plesac and Clevinger as players who didn't "adjust" to the protocols when they left the team hotel without permission last weekend. Meanwhile, their opponent the past two nights hasn't had a positive test among its players, and the Cubs have kept one another accountable away from the field, so distractions such as the Plesac/Clevinger situation haven't occurred.
"It is a short amount of time to just hunker down and stay in your room and do what needs to be done," the Cubs' Kris Bryant said after hitting a home run in Wednesday's game. "It's a big learning experience. The Indians had some guys step out. I'm sure they learned from it. Hopefully, we have a collective group of 30 teams that is able to commit to this process."
It has been difficult -- and not just for the Indians. The Cubs' archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, have been on the sidelines since July 29 because of a coronavirus outbreak, and another division rival, the Cincinnati Reds, is recovering from a slow start that included virus issues.
"They [Cubs players] have embraced the change and been accountable to one another in their work and attitude," Ross said before Wednesday's game. "Their focus has been off the charts."
That's showing up in their play. A terrible defensive team last season, the Cubs have flipped the script in that area. They've done the same on the basepaths, where they made the most outs in the league in 2018 and 2019. So far this season, they have made just three outs on the bases in 15 games.
"Sometimes a different set of eyes sees different things," Ross, the Cubs' first-year manager, said. "The overall arching theme is the players have to be accountable and work toward being better. They've done that."
But perhaps the most noticeable difference in the Cubs is at the plate. A team that was much worse than the sum of its parts the past couple of years has suddenly found its mojo. The Cubs showed that off in, of all places, Cleveland, where they won the World Series in 2016. Back then, the Cubs had a grinding offense.
"One through nine, there's not really a letdown in our lineup," Bryant said. "I can't really remember a time playing for this team where it was like that. I think it shows in our record."
That's saying something, given that the Cubs of 2016 and '17 were relentless, but of course, that was without a designated hitter every day. In any case, Indians starter Carlos Carrasco knows all too well what Bryant is talking about. He threw 89 pitches to get through the fourth inning Wednesday and was finished after 4⅓. The Cubs lead MLB in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.2), so Carrasco isn't alone in feeling that grind.
"We're playing as a team -- not playing with numbers [statistics]," shortstop Javy Baez said. "It's a short season, so we don't have time to be up and down."
Because of the short season, the numbers tell us something about the Cubs' fabulous start: They have a better than 95% chance of making the postseason, despite having played just 15 games. That's something that will keep the Cubs in line on and off the field as much as any protocol or directive.
"The whole day, you're on edge," infielder David Bote said of the safety protocols. "There's no place to relax except in your own room. Then you're staring at four walls. It makes it challenging."