On a Saturday afternoon like this, it doesn’t really matter who the Cubs are playing or how the home team is performing. Now in its 108th year, Wrigley Field remains the greatest asset for a franchise valued in the range of $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion, according to estimates by Forbes and Sportico. After snow flurries, rainstorms, 40-degree temperatures and Major League Baseball’s lockout marred the beginning of this season, it felt like an unofficial Opening Day for the Friendly Confines, the bleachers and surrounding rooftop buildings packed with fans and bathed in sunshine.
After new Bears coach Matt Eberflus threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a crowd of 39,917 watched the Cubs blitz the Pirates throughout a 21-0 win, which marked the team’s largest shutout victory since at least 1901. The total represented the most runs the Cubs scored at Wrigley Field since June 3, 1987, in the middle of Andre Dawson’s MVP season. The Cubs also enjoyed their widest margin of victory since a 24-2 road win over the Boston Braves on July 3, 1945.
desde seiya suzuki and Willson Contreras near the top of the lineup to No. 9 hitter Nico Hörnerthe Cubs continually put pressure on Pittsburgh’s defense, generating 23 hits, their most in a game since Opening Day 2005. Kyle Hendricks retired 15 of the first 16 hitters he faced, using 76 pitches to efficiently throw seven scoreless innings in a game that still took only 2 hours and 47 minutes to complete.
“Just a classic Wrigley day,” Hendricks said. “The crowd was amazing. It really fed into our guys. You saw it from the start how locked in everybody was. It was just a great day to be out there. It definitely started with a packed house and a lot of energy. That’s what we love.”
This environment doesn’t always create the highest sense of urgency on the business and baseball sides of the organization. Ten years ago, when tanking/trusting the process had not yet become a widespread practice, the Cubs sold more than 2.8 million tickets to watch a 101-loss team. Now it’s standard operating procedure, except for select teams like the yankeesRed Sox and Dodgers, the franchises the Cubs otherwise view as industry peers. If a lot of things go right, the Cubs could remain competitive in the near term until certain young players step forward, the farm system graduates a group of All-Stars making minimum salaries and the budget for baseball operations snaps back from recent cuts.
“A vision is different than what reality is, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Can you envision what things will look like? Sure. But my mind works in a positive light. Things don’t always happen. There’s a lot of adversity that comes in our game. Can I see where things are headed here? Sure. Is that reality? Not yet.”
The overexcitement about a more contact-oriented lineup (that has to do more damage), some homegrown pitchers emerging (in lower-leverage roles) and different clubhouse vibes (give it a few more months) obscured the fact that the Cubs have won just one of their first five series this season.
The Cubs also haven’t buried themselves, losing only one series so far and being in a position to split their third series on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. That’s not totally insignificant, considering they play in an unexceptional division and a big city that can exaggerate any sense of positive or negative momentum.
The Cubs are now 7-8 in what looked like a softer stretch in the schedule with six of their first 16 games coming against the Pirates, a team that lost 101 games last year and opened this season with an estimated $57 million major-league payroll , per RosterResource. It’s not about to get any easier with upcoming road trips to Atlanta and Milwaukee to face the defending World Series champs and the defending division champs. The Cubs then return for a five-game homestand against the White Sox and Dodgers (May 5-8) before heading out on a six-game road trip to San Diego and Arizona (May 9-15). Even at that point, the Cubs will only be roughly 20 percent through their schedule.
The Cubs haven’t come close to answering many of the questions up and down their roster, though Suzuki already looks like a slam-dunk pick to win the National League’s Rookie of the Year award and perhaps show up at the All-Star Game and in the MVP voting.
Suzuki initiated the offense in the first inning by smashing a ball that skipped into left field, then moving to third base and scoring on back-to-back singles by Contreras and Ian Happ. Displaying his adaptable approach against journeyman Pirates starter Zach Thompson, Suzuki knocked a two-strike RBI single into right field for a 2-0 lead in the second inning. Contreras followed with a two-run single that bounced through the middle of the infield. pittsburgh shortstop Kevin Newman then committed two fielding errors that allowed alfonso rivas to launch a three-run homer an estimated 416 feet into the right-field bleachers for a 9-0 lead.
“It’s just good for the psyche,” Ross said of players getting a chance to pad the early season stats they see on the video boards. “I don’t want to chalk it up and make excuses, but we’ve had some crappy weather to play in the last few days.”
In theory, those conditions should have favored the top of a rotation that features veteran starters who understand how to prepare for a long season, outthink hitters and make adjustments on the mound. The Cubs already know they need more from Hendricks, marcus stroman (0-2, 8.78 ERA) and Wade Miley, who’s on the injured list with left elbow inflammation. It was 73 degrees when Hendricks threw his first pitch at 1:20 pm and quickly went to work. Hendricks established his fastball, leaned on his defense and allowed just two hits and zero walks, dropping his ERA from 6.08 to 3.98 with a precise performance that Rivas called “as Professor as it gets.”
“All around, a nice group win and a beautiful day at Wrigley,” Ross said. “The fans were nice and loud. That was fun.”
When a group of reporters approached Hoerner at his locker, the shortstop answered the first question with the same observation. Hoerner went 4-for-5 with three RBIs but mostly noticed the moments before the stadium sound system started blasting “Go Cubs Go” and “Sweet Home Chicago” as the fans filed toward the exits. There haven’t been many days like this since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of the 2016 World Series core.
“Something that was cool about today was — obviously a game out of hand — but pretty much a packed stadium for the last out,” Hoerner said. “Just a lot of people appreciative of the first day of spring-slash-summer, right? Wrigley is always awesome, but today was like a true Wrigley experience. I’m glad we were able to have a good day for everyone.”
(Photo by Seiya Suzuki: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)