CHICAGO — Marcus Stroman threw his arms in the air and soaked in the cheers from the 38,163 fans at Wrigley Field.
First baseman Matt Mervis’ unassisted final out of the Chicago Cubs’ 1-0 win Monday snapped a four-game losing streak on the arm of Stroman’s one-hit gem. He took a no-hitter into the seventh and allowed only three Tampa Bay Rays to reach base — a hit by pitch, walk and single — in his second career shutout and first since 2014.
Wander Franco’s leadoff single to left in the seventh ended Stroman’s no-hit bid.
“I’m truly better when I’m calm,” Stroman said, “so I’m trying not to celebrate or get too antsy or get too excited in a moment because that’s going to take away from my next few pitches and probably going to get (me) out of my mechanics a bit.
“I wish I could have took myself out of that moment and really took that in because it felt special, but I had to really zone in and put everything outside of my mind and focus because I knew it was a one-run game.”
The Cubs (23-30) hadn’t recorded a complete-game shutout since Alec Mills’ no-hitter on Sept. 13, 2020.
“He’s a star that likes to shine bright,” manager David Ross said of Stroman. “And he does that on this stage in the stadium in front of these fans and in big-time moments. He’s done nothing but do that since he’s been here.”
Stroman credited catcher Tucker Barnhart’s game planning, noting he didn’t shake off a pitch call all game. For one day, at least, the Cubs could embrace the good vibes.
“We all talked about playing free, playing together and just playing for each other and getting back to just enjoying playing baseball,” Barnhart said. “And when stretches like this happen, where you’re scuffling and everybody’s kind of trying to do more and hit the three-run homer with nobody on base, those kinds of things start to wear on everybody.
“We’re going to keep battling, keep fighting. And at the end of the day, when you can look to your left and your right and say you gave it everything you had, I think that means so much — and Stro obviously did that today.”
Perhaps Stroman’s special performance against the best team in baseball will provide the spark that finally propels the Cubs into a consistent stretch of winning baseball as they close out a dreadful May (9-17).
But the path forward doesn’t get any easier, and their play the last four weeks could torpedo the Cubs’ summer before it gets underway. Two more games against the Rays precede a day off and a 10-game West Coast trip to San Diego, Anaheim and San Francisco. Time can run out quickly on a season.
Ross hasn’t seen the type of bad body language or lack of focus and effort that can plague a sliding team. The Cubs don’t want the frustration from losses stacking up to spiral further.
“I’ve definitely yelled before as a manager and gotten pissed and I’ve got that in my repertoire, but I’m here to support the players,” Ross said before Monday’s win. “I’m on their side. We’re trying to do this thing together and there’s a lot of frustrated people in that room, so adding more frustration to that I don’t think is a formula that I have seen have success in my time as a player or even as a manager.”
It all comes back to the Cubs finding more reliability and consistency in the bullpen and the lineup producing better with runners in scoring position.
Ross tried to mix things up in the series opener against the Rays to get something going for an offense in a prolonged funk. The lineup featured Miles Mastrobuoni leading off, Dansby Swanson dropped to the fifth spot in hopes of more opportunities with runners on base and five left-handed hitters starting against Rays rookie right-hander Taj Bradley, who owns reverse splits this year.
Ross cited Bradley’s track record — over the previous four years in the minors, lefties hit him better than righties — compared with the numbers produced in 46 innings between Triple A and the majors in 2023. The Cubs left-handed hitters, including the switch-hitting Ian Happ, went 0-for-12 with six strikeouts and a walk against Bradley.
Lefty-hitting center fielder Mike Tauchman drove in the lone run on a sacrifice fly in the fourth. Edwin Ríos, starting for the first time since he was recalled May 19, struck out twice as the designated hitter before Patrick Wisdom pinch-hit for him.
Ross said a lot of the lineup decisions centered on wanting to do something different for a struggling offense. He pointed to the Cubs’ on-base percentage (.323 in May, 16th in MLB) remaining high enough that the offense is still being hurt by the lack of timely hits.
“You’re trying to look at the big picture,” Ross said. “(Bradley’s) gotten hit by righties pretty hard this season, for sure. My guys would scream small sample police and the sirens would go off. Trying to balance that with a little bit of (what) he does, it’s a scattered profile — he doesn’t walk guys — but it is scattered.
“We’ve seemed to kind of thrive with the homer and the guys that are slugging. We’re not really coming through with the base hit stuff and lengthening the lineup a little bit. Breaking it up with all the different looks they have in the bullpen.”
Wisdom wasn’t in the lineup after slugging two homers Sunday. Ross said the decision was matchup-based versus riding the hot hand. Wisdom had been in a slump, 3 for his last 31, before Sunday.
Ross has done this before after a multi-homer game; Yan Gomes didn’t start after his two-homer game April 14 at Dodger Stadium.
“I can probably do a better job of just sticking to the actual profiles that are there and trying to balance that a little bit better,” Ross said.
As June rolls in this week, it’s not too early to consider how closely the Cubs are approaching a lost season that was supposed to feature competitive baseball on the North Side. A St. Louis Cardinals loss Monday moved the Cubs out of last place in the division by percentage points. Sitting five games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers makes the postseason feel in play more than their play has indicated.
“Obviously I follow the division and thankfully we’re still not playing our best baseball and things aren’t out of reach, but you can only say that for so long, right?” Ross said. “But I’m always really super hyperfocused on us and what we’re not doing right, where other teams are taking advantage of us. You can’t start worrying about the other team stuff until your stuff is dialed in in every little area, and we’re definitely not there.”
A stellar performance by Stroman on Monday doesn’t erase concerns about an underachieving roster that is developing an increasingly bleak outlook. If the Cubs can’t get back on track, another trade-deadline sell-off awaits.