Will Cubs show up after falling flat vs. Brewers to start huge series at Wrigley?

CHICAGO — About four hours before Monday night’s first pitch at Wrigley Field, the Pearl Jam song blasting inside Sluggers could be heard on the Clark Street sidewalk. People were already filling up tables on the sports bar’s Eddy Street patio. That energy has been building slowly throughout the season after being bottled up tightly for years. It wasn’t explicitly spelled out in a message on the stadium’s iconic marquee, but the Chicago Cubs are back.

You can see it in the extra cars parked in the neighborhood and the fans arriving early at Murphy’s Bleachers. “It’s just busy,” Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “A lot of things just seem to be happening.” You can hear the crowd of 35,097 anticipating a pivotal moment. You can tell when “It’s Different Here” is only a marketing slogan. You can’t fake a big-game atmosphere.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to start getting crazier and crazier as the year keeps going,’” said Swanson, who wanted that spotlight when he signed a seven-year, $177 million contract last winter. “There were some ushers saying that to my wife. We’re like, ‘Crazier? It’s already pretty high-energy and wild most of the time.’ They’re like, ‘No, you haven’t seen anything yet.’”

That requires controlling your emotions and executing your plan against a higher level of competition than the Detroit Tigers or Pittsburgh Pirates. The feel-good vibes at the start of this huge series against the Milwaukee Brewers lasted for only a few minutes after Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the Loyola University Chicago fixture, threw a ceremonial first pitch on her 104th birthday. For any surprising team that finds itself in a playoff race, being relevant again comes with the unspoken possibility that you might not handle the pressure.

Not that manager David Ross and the veteran group of players who clawed back from 10 games under .500 and prevented a sell-off at the trade deadline are going to read too much into a 6-2 loss to the Brewers. But this game basically felt over in the first inning, even for a team that has staged so many comebacks this year. Now Milwaukee has a five-game lead over the Cubs in the National League Central and Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff lined up to start the next two days at the Friendly Confines.

The Brewers jumped Jameson Taillon, who watched Christian Yelich hammer his third pitch into the left-field bleachers for a leadoff home run.

The first inning spiraled as Swanson, the Gold Glove defender who makes so many groundballs look like routine plays, moved to his right and made an errant throw back to second base, putting runners on second and third with one out. “That play should get made pretty much 100 out of 100 times,” Swanson said.

“Amped up a little bit” was one of Ross’ postgame observations about Taillon, whose dependability with the New York Yankees helped him earn a four-year, $68 million contract last offseason. After Swanson’s error set up Rowdy Tellez’s sacrifice fly, Taillon fell behind into another 2-0 count before Mark Canha launched another fastball 436 feet out toward the video board above the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer and a 4-0 lead.

“In the moment, I didn’t really think, ‘Man, I’m so amped up right now,’” Taillon said. “But I think if I were to look back at the delivery and the speed of everything, I would probably come back to you and say I was a little amped up subconsciously. I even felt it in my warmups. It was coming out really hot. I felt like maybe I was moving a little fast.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes a four-spot in the first inning to settle down. That puts us in a hole and allows their pitcher to just fill up the zone and work quickly.”

Nico Hoerner’s throwing error in the second inning factored into Milwaukee’s fifth run. Milwaukee’s starting pitcher was Wade Miley, who gave the Cubs minimal production last season (37 innings) after the Cubs claimed him off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds and picked up his $10 million contractual option. Miley, of course, has bounced back as a part of Craig Counsell’s pitching staff, going 7-3 with a 3.17 ERA in 18 starts. Year after year, the Brewers seem to identify pitchers, make creative deals, play matchups, find the right bullpen formula and take advantage of mistakes.

Taillon (7-9, 5.62 ERA) probably would have been demoted to the bullpen already if he didn’t have a long-term contract and the Cubs didn’t have other pressing issues with their pitching staff. No one knows when Marcus Stroman will pitch again. Hayden Wesneski hasn’t earned a spot back in the rotation. Drew Smyly has been minimized as a left-handed reliever. The bullpen has been taxed and there’s still another month to go.

The Cubs have also made it this far and remain in a wild-card position. Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks are lined up to start these next two games against the Brewers. Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks symbolize some of the organization’s emerging strengths in player development. There are intriguing names being bandied about as possible September call-ups. The buzz in Wrigleyville won’t just go away.

“When you get these generational fan bases and things start to line up in the right seasons, there’s just an energy in the place that’s incredible,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer recently told Jayson Stark on The Athletic’s “Starkville” podcast. “(A few) weeks ago, we had a couple games where I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really loud.’ It was such a great reminder. It’s a wonderful place to go to work every day no matter what. But I realized that ’19 was not a great season for us. We had some meaningful games towards the end, but the fan base didn’t gravitate towards that team in the same way. Then we won the division in 2020, but there were no fans. In ’21, we sold off the core at the deadline, and then last year wasn’t a good season. It had been four or five years since I really felt that energy. The first night we heard it, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s back.’”

(Photo of the Brewers’ Rowdy Tellez watching his sacrifice fly off Cubs starter Jameson Taillon in the first inning: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

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