3 takeaways from the Chicago Cubs’ opening series, including a glimpse of offensive potential

ARLINGTON, Texas — Adbert Alzolay‘s first fist pump of the season Sunday to mark a Chicago Cubs victory was the exclamation point they had been waiting for.

“Needed it,” a grinning Alzolay said. “The boys needed it.”

The Cubs (1-2) broke open a tied game with a four-run ninth in their 9-5 win against the Texas Rangers, led by Ian Happ’s bases-loaded walk to give them the lead and Seiya Suzuki following with a two-run single. Manager Craig Counsell received the game ball for his first win as Cubs manager. The congratulatory texts started to roll in postgame, including a message from chairman Tom Ricketts.

As the Cubs finally head home to Chicago ahead of their opener at Wrigley Field on Monday afternoon against the Colorado Rockies, there were three takeaways from their first series.

Counsell has talked about the importance of connectedness and stepping up for each other since the start of spring training, something that could be tested while the Cubs’ No. 1 starter is sidelined for at least a month by an injury.

With Justin Steele out the next few weeks with a left hamstring strain, the Cubs will need to fill his innings. They do not want the rest of the pitching staff to deviate from their approach, though, or feel pressure to step up during Steele’s absence.

“It’s so important these young guys understand just do what you do,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday. “Go as long as you go and then Counsell is going to get you out of there when he’s ready to make a move. That’s just so important, not only for young guys who experience it now, but I think over the course of their careers, it’s so important to trust what you can do really well and go out and execute.”

It comes down to maintaining focus and trying to get better each day rather than looking to take on the weight of losing Steele, an important mindset for a group that features less experienced big-league starters in Jordan Wicks, Shota Imanaga and Javier Assad. Wicks did his part Sunday and ended his outing on a high note by striking out Josh Jung and Adolis García to end the fourth with the go-ahead run on third base.

“We’ve got to each do our own jobs to kind of try and fill that void as much as we can until we get him back,” Wicks said. “He’s a huge piece of our team, huge piece of our rotation and we’re going to have to fill that collectively as a group. Not any one person is going to be able to come in and just immediately replicate what he does.”

The Cubs avoided carrying over Saturday’s offensive struggles into Sunday, quickly moving past a frustrating performance that had them looking to avoid the series sweep.

After not logging a plate appearance with a runner in scoring position Saturday, the Cubs tallied three extra-base hits and nine walks, three from Cody Bellinger alone, in Sunday’s victory. The patience the Cubs displayed in the ninth inning, when they sent nine batters to the plate, set up their big inning. They recorded three walks, two of which eventually scored as part of their four-run ninth.

“We kept putting pressure on them from the offensive perspective and we broke through so it’s a good team win where a lot of guys did a lot of good things to get us there,” Counsell said. “Obviously, the pressure we put on offensively today, that’s going to be tough to keep down if we can have innings like that consistently.”

Ideally, the Cubs’ offense steps up and shoulders more of the load until the rotation is back at full strength with the returns of Jameson Taillon and Steele. Christopher Morel’s three-run home run in the first inning Sunday provided the thump the Cubs want in the middle of the lineup. The lineup showed they can do that in the ninth Sunday without pressing in those big moments.

“In that situation, it’s really easy to try to do too much and try to hit a double or homer and put us in a position to take the lead and just for everybody to have good at-bats, it put us in a position not only to go ahead but to give Seiya a chance to drive in two — that’s a big deal,” Happ said. “As we get more comfortable, the lineup you’ll see a lot more of those bats and I think we showed that today.”

The Cubs need more consistency from their defense, which wasn’t crisp during the Cubs’ three-game series in Texas.

Two of their three errors in the series came Sunday — a bad throw at third by Morel in the second and a misplayed ball by Dansby Swanson in the fourth — which led to three unearned runs with Wicks on the mound. Seiya Suzuki lost a ball in the lights that resulted in a two-out triple in the sixth, but Julian Merryweather stranded the go-ahead run on García’s popout to end the inning.

Two miscues by Swanson and Morel that went for hits were part of the Rangers’ six-run eighth inning in Saturday’s 11-2 blowout loss. Nico Hoerner also had a throwing error in Thursday’s series opener.

For as good as the Cubs were defensively last year, they will need to clean up their play and not give teams extra outs, especially when facing a dangerous lineup like the Rangers’.

“Everything adds up so the more that we can make sure that guys don’t have to throw extra pitches, starters can go longer into games, it gives us a chance to use the bullpen less,” Happ said. “That all adds up over the course of the season. That’s our responsibility to do what we can to limit that, play really solid defense which this group has done for years now and continue to have that as a strength.”

Counsell knows what he has defensively in his team, spearheaded by Happ, Swanson and Hoerner coming off Gold Glove award-winning seasons.

“Everybody is going to be given a look just a tiny bit more responsibility, and there’s going to be somebody who takes Justin’s spot that’s going to be given a lot more responsibility,” Counsell said heading into Sunday’s series finale. “But obviously to make up for the loss I think it’s on all of us to make up a little bit.”