Chemistry, Intangibles Fueling Resurrected Chicago Cubs

Scott Engel
Last Updated: Aug 18, 2023

In spring training, the Chicago Cubs had a win total of 77.5 games at Caesars Sportsbook. At the All-Star break, they held a 42-47 record and seemed headed for another mediocre finish, despite adding the likes of Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger in the offseason.

The Cubs reset during the break, though, and since then, have been the second-best team in the National League, winning 20 of 31 games. Chicago is in a three-way tie for the third Wild Card spot in the National League, and all along, the players claim that they believed the team could be a winner.

“I think the thing with this group is that we’re resilient. We’re not going to get too high or too low; we’re going to stay steady,” infielder Patrick Wisdom told The Game Day Baseball.

When talking to many of the Cubs players, they all maintained that Swanson and Bellinger have kept the ballclub on solid ground emotionally.

“It means a ton,” second baseman Nico Hoerner said of having Swanson and Bellinger as on and off-field leaders. “These guys are never going to panic, and they’ve been through it all this game.”

A rousing win over the White Sox on Aug. 16 echoed Hoerner’s sentiments. In danger of losing a third consecutive game for the first time since July 1 and being swept in a two-game set at home by a depleted crosstown rival, Christopher Morel hit a three-run walk-off home run to stun the White Sox and set off a jubilant celebration.

A week before the dramatic homer, shortstop Nick Madrigal may have forecasted the event when he spoke about Morel being a key cog in the team’s resurgence after winning 74 games last season.

“He’s a dangerous player each and every day,” Madrigal said. “He can hit the ball out of the ballpark at any given moment.”

Many Major League Baseball analysts and experts dive heavily into statistics and analytics and do a fine job of revealing key trends while also breaking down the game. But there are also human elements that spur winning, and intangibles and camaraderie seem to be what has been driving these Cubs since mid-July.

“We did a lot of awesome things this offseason,” said starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who has been with the Cubs since 2014. “We’ve added so much to this clubhouse. We’ve just brought in guys that have just won their entire careers.”

Swanson won the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 2021, and Bellinger won it in 2020 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one year after being named the National League MVP.

Jameson Taillon pitched deep into the playoffs with the New York Yankees in 2022, and those newcomers have created a new overall dynamic in terms of team chemistry.

“That pedigree and the way you carry yourself, all of our young guys are learning from them,” Hendricks said. “The work ethic that they come in with every day. It’s no wonder why they’ve had so much success in their careers”.

“It’s really good for our young guys to be able to watch that and learn from them.”

The 24-year-old Morel began the 2023 season in the minor leagues but joined the big club in early May and became the first player in team history to hit nine home runs in his first 12 games. He has sewed up a regular spot in the lineup and is up to 19 home runs, crediting the influence of Swanson and Bellinger as new teammates.

“They’re great pillars. They’re guys that help us all,” Morel said, adding that he is more confident this season, and so is the team. Of his mentality this year, Morel said he now has “the mindset that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

Some significant keys to Chicago’s revival since the break have been Bellinger recapturing his best form and he and Swanson returning from injuries. The trade deadline addition of corner infielder Jeimer Candelario has also provided an additional boost for the stretch run.

Bellinger went on the injured list in May with a knee contusion, the latest in another long line of health issues that had prevented him from finding his 2019 self again.

The 28-year-old returned nearly a month later and was named the National League’s Player of the Month for July, hitting .400 with eight homers (the first Cub to do so in a calendar month in 30 years), 24 RBI, and 21 runs scored.

The .327 batting average is a career high right now, and Bellinger’s .554 slugging percentage is his best since the MVP year of ’19. Only Ronald Acuna Jr. and the Cubs standout have hit .325 with 18 homers and 17 steals this season.

His teammates say while the 2018 NLCS MVP has been an All-Star on game days, Bellinger is also a model teammate off the field.

“He’s everything for us in that he’s a superstar that’s not above doing all the small parts of the game, too,” the 26-year-old Hoerner said. “He’s a guy that just loves to have fun and hang out with everybody. Just a joy to have around.”

Swanson spent two weeks on the IL in July with a heel contusion. When he returned on July 22, the team reeled off seven consecutive wins, and he has eight homers and 24 RBI since he came back to the lineup.

While Swanson has hit .232 over the last month, he has still combined with Bellinger to be the guiding force that may point the team to the postseason.

“They’re impact players in this game, and it’s obvious when you watch our games that they play a pivotal role,” Wisdom said. “They’re also great guys in the clubhouse and fun to be around.”

“They’ve won before. They bring a lot to the clubhouse and to the field.”

Candelario, amid a career season with Washington, filled a significant corner infield need for Chicago and has settled in well at first base.

He has hit .391 with nine runs scored in his first 12 games with the Cubs, and with 17 home runs already, the original Cub from 2016-17 is on pace to easily surpass his previous career high of 19.

“He’s stepped in and provided a spark to this lineup,” Madrigal said.

Heading into their win over the White Sox on Wednesday, the Cubs had scored 190 runs since the break, with a .276 average and a .840 OPS.

All those marks were second-best in MLB during that span, and while so much credit was given to Swanson and Bellinger for leading the way, the players also praised their supporting team staffers.

“I think our scouting department and our hitting staff here does a great job of prepping us, giving us information, and creating a team plan of attack to go out there and give us our best shot each and every night,” Wisdom said.

While such compliments may seem to be stock quotes on the surface, consider that there have been complaints about coaching staffs and front office types in recent seasons for some losing teams. But hitting coaches Dustin Kelly and Johnny Washington have won the favor of the guys they are working with.

“A lot of credit goes to the hitting coaches, just getting us ready to face the starters. It seems like from the first pitch, we have a game plan, and we’re executing that game plan,” Madrigal said.

The pitching may be pivotal as Chicago tries to make the playoffs and win its first series since its championship season of 2016. Losing staff anchor Marcus Stroman to a rib injury that puts him out until further notice doesn’t help the outlook, but he had a 9.11 ERA in six July starts before landing on the IL with a hip injury.

The Cubs managed to race out of the gate in the second half without Stroman, and Justin Steele has been a revelation this year (13-3, 2.79 ERA). Taillon had allowed nine earned runs in six starts before he stumbled last Sunday at Toronto.

Hendricks has allowed three or fewer earned runs in five of his last six starts.

“We have full confidence in each guy that goes out there, and that’s a big part of this game, having comfortability with the guys not just in the batter’s box but on the mound,” Wisdom said.

Still, without Stroman having a timetable for a return, some observers may believe the Cubs don’t have what it fully takes to keep their momentum going the rest of the way. But whatever people say on the outside, the team believes its collective mentality, emanating from its two standouts, can continue to help them defy expectations.

“Having proven winners in the clubhouse now, leading the team, going out every single day, it just shows the camaraderie we have as a group. We’re super close this year,” Hendricks said.

Wisdom said the team came into spring training with a new aura and will continue to carry it into the playoff push.

“I think there’s a mindset of winning and competitiveness, and the standard has been set since spring training. I think it’s just more experience with everybody on this team, things starting to go our way, and guys coming into their own.

“It’s fun to be a part of, and we’re not done yet.”


Scott Engel

Scott Engel is a Senior Sports Writer at The Game Day. Previously he was at and The Athletic. His work is also featured at RotoBaller and on Scott is a host on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. He is an inaugural member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association's Hall of Fame. Scott is a four-time FSWA award winner and a 13-time finalist. He was an Associate Editor and featured writer at and his career began at CBS SportsLine, where he was a Senior Writer and Managing Editor. Scott was the Managing Director at RotoExperts.

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