Cigar smoke filled the room. Beer cans overflowed from the garbage can. Plastic covered the lockers inside the cramped visiting clubhouse.
The Atlanta Braves technically clinched the National League East on Sunday afternoon when the Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins. But they partied after a 5-2 victory over the Cubs in front of 30,515 fans, enough doing the tomahawk chop that you could hear the chant at Wrigley Field’s highest level.
When lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel finished off Junior Lake with a 98 mph fastball, the Braves formed a mosh pit around the pitcher’s mound, jumping up and down. No one knows when the Cubs will be putting on Oakley goggles and spraying bottles of champagne.
The Cubs aren’t looking for a manager when they’re “ready to win,” as if an organization can flip a switch. That’s missing the point. The sense of urgency to this evaluation is that they need someone who can make a difference during minicamps in Arizona, on the back fields in spring training and across the 2014 season.
[MORE: Barney says leaving Cubs helped Sandberg]
Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer hired Dale Sveum to be that guy.
“We love Dale and we want him here,” pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “But it’s no different than a lot of the free agents we have on this team. A lot of futures are uncertain. Everyone’s playing for their job.
“It’s just the way it goes. It’s no different than being mentioned in trade talks and things like that. It’s essentially all rumors and you go out and try to play to the best of your ability every day and win a ballgame.”
The Cubs (65-91) lost control of this one in the first inning when Freddie Freeman hammered Edwin Jackson’s first-pitch fastball onto Sheffield Avenue for a two-run homer. The $52 million signature free agent is now 8-17 with a 4.74 ERA.
The Cubs also invested more than $100 million in Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Core players can’t have such up-and-down seasons when the Cubs will be trying to incorporate Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and the prospects that look good on paper but will inevitably experience the same growing pains.
You can make this case for the Cubs manager: Rizzo is still good for 20-plus homers, around 80 RBI and a potential Gold Glove defender. At age 23, Castro (.241 average) is having a down year in what should be a long and productive All-Star-level career.
Samardzija (8-12, 4.42 ERA) – who has struggled with consistency but is already past 200 innings and 200 strikeouts – will face the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night at Wrigley Field. That’s another contender looking to celebrate, and the Cubs finish the season next weekend at Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals will be preparing for a run at their 12th World Series title.
Samardzija says “without a doubt” Sveum has what it takes to be the guy when the Cubs are back in the race and playing for October.
“That’s not the issue,” Samardzija said. “There are other things that need to be righted before that’s a problem. There are improvements we can make (in) all three facets of the game. That’s what we need to improve first. That’s being a young team, but also needing to grow up quicker and learn from our mistakes.”
[RELATED: Sveum defends Rizzo's 2013 campaign]
Sveum’s staff has implemented a strong system for advance scouting and video analysis. The coaches helped turn Darwin Barney into a Gold Glove second baseman in 2012 (and a .209 hitter this season). Chris Bosio coached up pitchers Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm before the trade deadlines, allowing the front office to collect more prospects while Travis Wood emerged as an All-Star.
Has Sveum done what the front office asked and met expectations during his first two years on the job?
“That’s not for me to say or judge,” Barney said. “All I know is that for me personally he’s been very beneficial. On the defensive side, he helped me take my game to a new level. He really gave me some insight on footwork and stuff like that.
“But that’s really not my judgment. It’s hard to know what the front office is thinking and what they want. Again, that’s out of my hands and that’s something that I can’t even make a guess at.”
Samardzija met with Sveum and the front office the same day as the manager’s first Wrigley Field press conference in November 2011, part of his full-court press to join the rotation.
“From Day 1, they called me up and wanted me to be a big part of this team,” Samardzija said. “Coming from where I was before – up-and-down, bullpen/starting – to hear that and really take a deep breath and just work on what I need to do pitching was huge.
“That’s what it’s all about – instilling confidence in your players – and Dale definitely does that.”
Cubs executives are working in gray areas here, trying to figure out how it went wrong and what needs to change for 2014. Even with all the speculation about his job security, Sveum says he still thinks about the other side of this rebuilding project.
“That’s the vision you have,” Sveum said, “wanting to be in that position, wanting to get into September and play meaningful games and go through the playoff atmosphere.”