- Doug Padilla, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Finally home after a road trip that would shake even the most confident player to his core, the Chicago Cubs insist they still have plenty of fight left inside them.
Now the Cubs say they are ready to scratch and claw, but in comparing their roster to teams around the league, any fight they face in the foreseeable future looks to be fairly lopsided. The past two days, though, they have looked willing to stand up to conflict, both literally and figuratively.
On Friday, the Cubs went toe-to-toe with the Atlanta Braves, getting past the disappointment of a Hector Rondon blown save to win it 5-4 in walk-off fashion on Justin Ruggiano’s RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning.
“[The spirit] is still there,” Ruggiano said. “We were probably a little down losing those two guys, they were big guys in the clubhouse. But we’ve got a pretty tight group of men in here and we all pull for each other. We’ll be all right.”
Fight, and youthful exuberance, will get you only so far, though. New staff ace Jake Arrieta was his typical stingy self on Friday, giving fresh-faced Arismendy Alcantara the chance to deliver when it mattered. Alcantara not only singled with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, his steal of second base helped set up Ruggiano’s game winner.
“When you have a young person come in fresh to the big leagues there is a lot of energy and excitement,” manager Rick Renteria said. “There is a willingness to want to go out and show you what they have. This young man actually just has the energy and desire to get out there. He is very composed. He has a lot of composure to him for being out there for the first time.”
The problem is that he doesn’t have numbers on his side, specifically roster numbers. The Cubs can actually get away with only three starters until July 22 and with four starters until July 24. That means somebody will have to go when the rotation is returned to full strength, and Alcantara might be on borrowed time.
“I think that any player when they impact your team and show you what they have, I think the easiest thing to do is for people to start to speculate if he will stick around,” Renteria said. “We’ll have to make that decision as an organization when we come to it. It would be premature and irresponsible for me to say something like that, but he does impact the way you view him for sure.”
On Thursday, Alcantara had three hits in a game that ultimately became known for Anthony Rizzo’s beef with Aroldis Chapman. After Chapman sent two fastballs to the backstop while facing Nate Schierholtz, Rizzo was among Cubs players who expressed displeasure with the pitches.
When Chapman dismissed the Cubs’ gripes with a wave of his glove, Rizzo kept the conversation going before the next half inning started by shouting in Chapman’s direction while walking toward the Reds’ dugout.
Benches cleared, with no punches thrown, but the biggest happening of all might have been Rizzo’s move into a leadership role. The backup All-Star first baseman might have set a tone moving forward in the wake of Samardzija and Hammel taking a combined 2.91 ERA with them to Oakland, while not leaving a whole lot of experience behind.
“Yeah, there is always spirit, win or lose,” Rizzo insisted. “It’s a great group of guys and you just want to keep coming together and keep getting better.”
Since winning will be tough, getting better will be the key. It’s uncertain how far a rotation of Arrieta, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and whoever else (likely Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyle Hendricks) will take the Cubs.
But for now it’s about not letting things get too out of hand, while also learning as much as possible in the process. The Cubs know that a whole lot of talented young players are coming soon, so for now it’s about bridging the gap until they are ready to arrive.
“The future's bright; that's very apparent,” Arrieta said. “There are guys like Alcantara, and we know we've got some guys in the pipeline who can definitely help us in the near future. I look forward to seeing those guys, [Javier] Baez and [Kris] Bryant, a couple of others.
“It's going to be a fun, fun period of time here over the next six to eight months, toward the end of season and beginning of next season -- just seeing those guys blossom and continue to grow and get some experience up here. That'll be very valuable for them leading into the coming season.”
For now, it’s Alcantara’s time to blossom, however long his stay lasts.
“We saw him play in spring, I saw him play in my rehab and he’s got all kinds of tools,” Ruggiano said. “Youth eventually can sometimes be a factor, but from what I see, he’s got enough tools I think where he could stay afloat and probably be a very good player for many years. Who knows what will happen? But I like him around. I like him in the lineup. He’s got a little spark to him.”