MIAMI – Dale Sveum pushed some buttons, trying to jolt a team that looked a little too comfortable.
One week after the manager called out his players – letting the media run with the idea that franchise first baseman Anthony Rizzo and All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro could be benched or even shipped to Triple-A Iowa – the Cubs have looked sharper.
Even with Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Miami Marlins, the Cubs left Little Havana with the sense that they had weathered a three-city, 10-game road trip. They bounced back from an ugly sweep in Milwaukee and heard the “Nobody’s exempt” declaration in Cincinnati.
Sveum would settle for a 4-6 trip, even if the second-year manager wasn’t sure whether or not there was a cause-and-effect or if his words had impact.
“I don’t know,” Sveum said. “Whenever you do anything like that, it either goes one way or the other. You never really know in baseball. Obviously, we’ve played better. We’ve made many more plays. The starting pitching’s been the same. The bullpen’s been much, much better. We had some more timely hitting.
“The overall game now is obviously much better.”
The Cubs (9-15) don’t have a difference-maker like Giancarlo Stanton, and the Miami star heated up with the roof closed at Marlins Park, crushing two homers and driving in the game-tying run with a line-drive single in the sixth inning. Moments later, Donovan Solano hit a bullet off Carlos Villanueva and past Castro to make it a 4-3 game.
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Villanueva – who once played for Sveum in Milwaukee and looks like a shrewd free-agent signing with a 2.29 ERA through five starts – was asked if the team responded to the manager’s pointed comments.
“I don’t think so – I didn’t,” Villanueva said. “The manager has his job. If he feels that he has to say something, then he’ll say it. And it’s our job to listen. Some guys, their minds work different. For me, I know the job that I have, and I don’t need anybody (saying that). I do my best not to get anybody to yell at me, because I don’t like that. I’m old enough to know what I have to do.
“But certain messages are directed to certain players and I guess whoever has to take that message will take it.
“We have younger guys and the younger guys sometimes need a little wakeup call. But I think we police ourselves and I think we have a good clubhouse here. I know we’ll be all right.”
The night before, Castro had made a game-saving defensive play. Rizzo closed out his South Florida homecoming by picking up two more hits, including an RBI double. There’s no one in this lineup close to matching his production (eight homers, 19 RBI).
While waiting for Alfonso Soriano to get hot, the Cubs feel like Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney and part-time closer Kevin Gregg have stabilized their infield defense and the bullpen.
These are the margins: All 24 games have been decided by four runs or less, a new franchise record. This marked the ninth loss by two runs or less. Three losses have come in the final at-bat. Five different relievers have blown six saves.
“You just can’t dwell too much on it,” Villanueva said. “It can eat you up. You get negative and it’s easy when you’re down by one or two runs (to think): ‘Oh, here we go again, we’re done.’ But (the) veteran guys here are trying to guide the younger guys.
“It’s not the end of the world. We’re going to go through tough stretches. We understand every single game we’ve lost has been a close game. I don’t remember a game where we’ve been (blown out). Nobody’s handing our butts to us.”
The marketing department probably won’t put #Committed at the end of that line. And the Marlins (6-19) are the worst team in the National League. But the Cubs return home for another four-game series against a last-place team – the San Diego Padres – that begins a 16-of-19 stretch at Wrigley Field. There are only so many times Sveum can use this playbook.
“When he says something, it’s not only for like two or three guys, it’s for everybody in the room,” Soriano said. “We’re 25 players. We have to be together. Sometimes he tries to send a message to everybody to perform better.
"He tried to send a message to motivate players, especially the young guys. It’s not like looking for the negative. It’s just motivation, because if we look for the negative part, we’ll take nothing good from there.”