Cubs heading into potential make-or-break week


CHICAGO -- Rick Ross’ hustling anthem “B.M.F.” was blaring in the Cubs' clubhouse Sunday as injured catcher David Ross walked by and declared “another shutout for the catching department.”

The Cubs had just blanked the Marlins 2-0, despite collecting only three hits and scoring their only run of the first seven innings on a wild pitch. That’s Chicago's third shutout win in a week, despite just five runs scored in the process.

What the rapper Ross calls hustling the Cubs call grinding.

“It’s a nod to how tough we are,” Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel said before the game. “We have all these tough games. We’re in the grinding part of our season right now.”

Call Wrigley Field "The Grindhouse" this week because the Cubs are going to be need all the grindiness they can muster.

The first-place Cardinals come to town Monday for a four-game series, which includes a Tuesday doubleheader, followed by the White Sox for what should be a fun crosstown series. All this comes before the All-Star break.

Rivalry Week sponsored by, well, the Cubs haven't even sponsored that yet. But they should. This is going to be an interesting seven games.

There hasn't been a week such as this on the North Side in years. For ticket scalpers and beer vendors, this is like Christmas in July. For the Cubs, simply shaving a few games off their division deficit would be huge.

Although the Sox series means little in the grand scheme of things, the Cubs absolutely need to make up ground against St. Louis, after they lost six of seven at Busch Stadium this season. It's not about bragging rights -- it's about the division.

One game before the halfway point of the season, the Cubs are 44-36, good enough right now for the second wild card spot but 8 1/2 games behind St. Louis in the National League Central.

The Cubs were outscored 15-4 in their three-game sweep at St. Louis at the end of June. That was the end of a season-worst five-game losing streak that started against the Dodgers in Chicago.

Since then, the Cubs rebounded by outscoring the Mets and Marlins 19-5 and winning five of six games in their past two series.

The most recent time the Cardinals came to Wrigley Field, the bleachers were a hard-hat zone, the bathroom lines were labyrinthine torture exercises and Kris Bryant was cooling his spikes in Triple-A. The teams split those two games, and the Cubs have been manhandled by their rivals ever since.

Given that it’s the beginning of July, this could well be a season-altering series.

If the Cubs are in striking distance of the division, it would give team president Theo Epstein more of an impetus to push for a trade for top-line pitching or another bat in the trade market. If the Cubs are in wild-card-or-bust mode, he could be more conservative in deals at the end of this month.

The season is past the halfway point. These games really matter.

But still, few players in the clubhouse want to talk about the added importance of the Cardinals series.

“It’s the same as any team we play,” Denorfia said. “If they’re in our division, we want to come out and be extra prepared to play our best ball, but always, our goal every series is to win.”

No kidding.

Hammel told me it’s “definitely” a big week coming up.

“On our turf, with the Cardinals, we got to defend home turf,” he said. He also predicted it will be “seven hard-fought games” and “two good series, for sure.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who could wax poetic about the Hornitos Hacienda in left field, was firm before and after the game about not looking ahead to the week or giving the Cardinals any extra favor.

“What means a lot is Monday’s game,” Maddon said. “I’ll only concede to that. I don’t look in clumps. I look in and try to stay with the daily approach. I know you’re supposed to be more concerned with winning in your division, but I’m more concerned about winning every night. I know I get disagreed with that a lot, but I really want our guys to approach the day like that.”

The Cubs were certainly happy to grab a win against the Marlins on a blah post-holiday afternoon. The players were fired up filing into their clubhouse.

Maddon, however, though he believes in magic, is not one for blathering about momentum heading into a series he won’t hype in the first place.

Does winning a game such as Sunday's mean anything against John Lackey on Monday?

“It’s back to ground zero,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any wonderful advantage, quite frankly.”

The Cubs are just happy to be in this position heading into the All-Star break. Last year at this time, Jason Hammel had just been traded to Oakland. Now we’re talking about a big series at Wrigley with playoff implications.

“Right now, all you want to do is stay relevant,” Hammel said. “As long as you keep your head above water the first four months of the season, everything kicks in late. Obviously, I think we’re doing a very good job for not having done that in a while. It’s nice to go out and win some of these ballgames we’ve been playing.”

Through the first 80 games of the season, the Cubs have exceeded outside expectations. But the Cubs have their own expectations.

No matter what anyone says on the record, everyone knows this is a very important week for the direction of this team.

What will we say about this week in October? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.