Young Cubs enjoying new edge after sweep of Pirates
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com September 9, 2012 10:00PM
Cubs starter Chris Rusin made up for his last outing against the Nationals by allowing one run and five hits Sunday. | Justin K. Aller~Getty Images
Updated: October 11, 2012 6:19AM
PITTSBURGH — Sunday was NFL Jersey Day for the Cubs and their roadies, another one of those team-building, dress-up travel days when these long-beleaguered players get a chance to imagine they’re somebody else, heading off to anyplace other than a third straight fifth-place finish.
Alfonso Soriano was Deion ‘‘Prime Time’’ Sanders in an Atlanta Falcons jersey. Manager Dale Sveum was Kenny Stabler in a throwback Oakland Raiders jersey. And little Tony Campana was big Jim Brown for a day in a Cleveland Browns jersey.
The thing is, a lot of these same guys also transformed themselves on the field for three days before they ever put on the shirts.
And whether it has something to do with that fight in Washington on Thursday night or what Pittsburgh Pirates fans are starting to consider an annual choke job by their team — and whether it has any chance of lasting into the week — the Cubs headed to Houston on Sunday night with their first series sweep in almost two months.
Dealing another big blow to the already-fading Pirates’ playoff hopes, the Cubs followed Jeff Samardzija’s complete-game win in his final start of the year Saturday with a 4-2 victory Sunday before heading out for three games against the only team with a worse record than themselves.
‘‘You’ve got to give these guys a lot of credit,’’ Sveum said, ‘‘after what happened in Washington, to come in here against a really good team and some good pitching [and do this].’’
With 22 games left in this sacrificial first season under Theo Epstein, they have 15 rookies, a starting rotation made up entirely of guys who spent significant time in the minors this year and a long list of guys who still have to prove they even belong in the majors.
But Sveum and some of the players think the shoving match against the Nationals at the end of a four-game thrashing has changed the look of the young Cubs more than any collection of jerseys or costumes.
‘‘You don’t condone stuff like that, but in my 30 years in the game, for some reason it does bring teams together,’’ Sveum said of bench-clearing scrums. ‘‘Or you start playing better or winning more ballgames. Is it a coincidence or not? You never know. But it gets guys going a little bit, I guess, especially in these kind of days when a team’s struggling like we have been.’’
‘‘Especially with a young group like we are,’’ pitcher Travis Wood said after his start Friday. ‘‘It kind of fired us up and brought us closer together because we were all out there as one. You need that with a lot of young guys.’’
It won’t make avoiding 100 losses any easier, with Samardzija shut down and a duct-tape rotation the rest of the way.
But rookie Chris Rusin bounced back from a beating in Washington to pitch five solid innings Sunday. And Darwin Barney continued a Gold Glove campaign by breaking Ryne Sandberg’s National League record for consecutive errorless games at second base (he’s now at 125).
And Alfonso Soriano won’t stop hitting. His 28th home run, in the eighth, put the Cubs ahead and pushed his RBI total to a Cubs-career-best 94.
‘‘It’s like he’s on a mission right now,’’ Sveum said.
Soriano thinks he had better seasons in 2007 and ’08 for the Cubs, but he sees greater significance this time around as a role model.
‘‘It’s more important because I’m 36 years old and working, and I don’t feel like I’m 36,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to prove to my teammates and people outside that I may be 36, but I don’t feel like it, and I still can do a lot of things in this game.’’