Despite securing a playoff berth in his first season as manager, David Ross doesn’t profess to have the answers — or care to have them — to some puzzling questions that have hovered around the Chicago Cubs.
“I can’t explain the lack of power,” Ross said during a conference call about a once-potent lineup that has averaged barely one home run a game and had hit only one homer in its last six games entering Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
“There’s not really a lot to explain in this season. It’s unique in so many ways. We’re all getting through it the best we can and making the most of it.”
The next objective, after qualifying for the postseason Tuesday night, is to clinch the National League Central title as soon as possible. That would secure home-field advantage for the best-of-three NL wild-card series starting Wednesday and enable the Cubs to treat their remaining games as tune-ups and auditions.
Ross didn’t rule out the possibility that Kyle Hendricks, who made his final regular-season start Wednesday, might make a brief relief appearance against the White Sox this weekend to remain sharp.
“There’s a lot of potential for us to get some work in, even with some off days there (on Monday and Tuesday) as well,” Ross said. "We’re going to have a lot of guys who need to throw. We’re planning for a lot of those scenarios and talked about a lot of those things.
“We have alternate plans, but we’ve got to play out the season and see how things go from start to start.”
In Ross’ estimation, Hendricks ranks among the least of his worries. He has looked sharp ever since the Cubs returned from the 3 1/4 u00bd-month COVID-19-induced shutdown, beginning with a shutout in the season opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.
There is a need, however, to get as many looks as possible at borderline pitching candidates because the best-of-three series creates a great sense of urgency.
“In a three-game series, I don’t know if you’re ever going to let your foot off the gas,” Ross said. “We’ll get good looks at other guys and continue to shape up our thoughts on the (28-man) roster.”
Ross also tempered the thought of using more starters in piggyback roles, citing Jose Quintana and Adbert Alzolay as the only two who have appeared in relief.
And Alzolay, who struck out seven in four innings Tuesday, isn’t assured of a spot on the roster.
“I want to win baseball games,” Ross said. “Let’s not get off track here. Getting looks will come as a product of trying to put guys in the right situation to succeed, so that’s a part of what would come if (Alzolay) comes in a game in a couple days.”
Meanwhile, Kris Bryant’s return before the end of the regular season appears questionable, although Bryant accelerated his rehab by performing mobility drills and more “strenuous activity,” Ross said.
“The good news was he felt better (Wednesday) than (Tuesday),” Ross said.
David Bote, Bryant’s replacement at third base, believes he can finish the season after being nagged with an injury that neither he nor Ross would disclose.
“By the way I’m feeling (Wednesday), I can play from here on out,” Bote said. “A couple days ago I couldn’t.”
Despite the looming questions, Ross is encouraged by the way the starting pitching led the Cubs to a 13-3 start and by the bullpen, which struggled miserably in the first week, rebounding to post a major-league-leading 2.07 ERA in its last 23 games.
That has offset an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in batting average (.223), 12th in slugging percentage (.386) and OPS (.705) and 10th in home runs (64).
The Cubs are batting .197 against left-handed pitchers, and Bryant (.320) is the only starting position player hitting higher than .227 against lefties.
“The hitters, finding ways to win is just as important as your numbers,” Ross said. “These guys have found a way to win when things haven’t been pretty.”
Ross cited Javier Baez’s two-out bunt that scored Kyle Schwarber and sparked a 5-0 win over the Pirates on Monday and Jason Heyward snapping a 17-inning scoreless streak with a three-run, game-winning home run off Josh Hader of the Brewers on Sept. 12.
“If I know anything about this group, when the lights shine the brightest, a lot of these guys have been there and stepped up and risen to the occasion,” Ross said.
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