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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Steve Greenberg

Presto! In one year, the Cubs went from a thrilling night to an unrecognizable sight

Cubs catcher P.J. Higgins makes the final out of the first game of Monday’s doubleheader, which was swept by the Brewers. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

For the Cubs, nothing about the 2021 season was easy. After a while — the trade deadline looming — every day became more awkward than the last. What would happen to the team’s core? Was it really going to be goodbye? It was all just too much.

But May 31 at Wrigley Field was magical. It was afternoon baseball, the weather was right and the red-hot Padres — the talk of the league at the time — were in town. The game itself would deliver so much on top of all that.

Anybody remember who homered twice? It was Patrick Wisdom, who capped his first week as a Cub with career homers Nos. 2 and 3 as the Cubs won 7-2.

But Wisdom wasn’t the only one. Javy Baez — like teammate Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, a pending free agent — stepped up in the third inning and, with the count full against righthander Chris Paddock, took one 455 feet, standing at the plate and watching until the ball was rattling around the camera well high above the shrubbery in dead center. After homering again — his 13th already — in the seventh, Baez received a curtain call from the crowd of 24,824, which was maxed out at 60% due to pandemic restrictions.

“It felt like a playoff game,” he said afterward.

Bryant also homered — he used to do that sort of thing now and again, you know — and the Cubs finished the month at 30-23 and in first place in their division.

June swoon? Not gonna happen.

Break up the team? The front office better start embracing a winning Plan B.

Or so one wanted to believe after a game like that. Ah, well. The Cubs haven’t stopped swooning since.

Exactly one year later, the inconsequential Cubs were back at Wrigley, where they’ve stumbled and bumbled and — with the first-place Brewers in town and the second-place Cardinals on deck — undoubtedly will continue to be humbled.

The gap between these teams is nevertheless almost startling. The Cubs took the field Tuesday with a record of 19-29, 10 games under .500 before June for the first time since 2014. The Brewers were flashing a 32-18 mark, only 2½ games off the league-best paces of the Dodgers and Yankees.

The Cubs are in a full-blown rebuild while president Jed Hoyer twists himself into a rhetorical pretzel posturing as though the R-word doesn’t fit. The Brewers don’t know how to say “rebuild,” either, because all they do is win and keep going for the gusto. It will surprise all of baseball if they don’t reach the postseason for the fifth year in a row, and just imagine if they win their first-ever World Series. If they can pull that off, there will be a debate worth having about which run was more impressive: the Cubs’ one that’s over-and-out or the Brewers’ one that’s still at full throttle.

But what there’s no argument whatsoever about is which of these teams is relevant in 2022 and which isn’t. Not to mention which of these clubs repeatedly rises above its market size and limitations, and which slinks along below it.

It was all too fitting in Game 3 of this brutal homestand that the Cubs’ 26-year-old lefty starter, Justin Steele, took the mound with a record of 1-5 and the Brewers’ 26-year-old lefty starter, Eric Lauer, followed him there at 5-1.

Will Steele be here two years from now, one year from now, two months from now?

Will the who’s-who of “who?” that is the Cubs roster stick around, come and go, fade into oblivion?

It’s a cute story that Matt Swarmer — who started a game Monday as the Cubs dropped both ends of a doubleheader to the Brewers — pitched against 40-year-olds in a rec league to try to stay sharp in 2020. It would be even cuter if it were possible to take a few liberties with his surname, turn him into Kyle Schwarber and plant him back in left field.

And did you see that backup catcher P.J. Higgins is Swarmer’s guy, has been his battery mate for years? It’s nice. OK, so it ain’t David Ross and Jon Lester.

Are we to pay any attention at all to the bromance between young prospects Christopher Morel and Nelson Velasquez? Or is it safe to assume we don’t have quite the next Bryzzo on our hands?

Or maybe they’ll pan out and everything will be great. Until then, there is no joy — no magic — in Mudville.

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