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Paul Sullivan: One year after his managerial debut, David Ross is trying to right the ship for Cubs
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Paul Sullivan: One year after his managerial debut, David Ross is trying to right the ship for Cubs

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CHICAGO — Kyle Hendricks took the mound for the Chicago Cubs in the opener of the abbreviated 60-game season one year ago Saturday, throwing a complete-game shutout against the Milwaukee Brewers at a fan-free Wrigley Field.

It also was the first game of the pandemic-delayed season and the managerial debut of David Ross, who on Saturday said it seemed “like a long way away.”

For many of us, the last year has flown by, but in many respects Ross was right.

A complete game by the Cubs? An empty ballpark? A 1-0 Cubs win?

Those things seem like a lifetime ago to fans, who have come back in droves since Wrigley went to 100% capacity in June. They’ve returned to a place they call home to watch a team they love in spite of its yearlong offensive snooze and management’s stated intention of listening to offers on its biggest stars.

A crowd of 37,190 turned out on a sweltering Saturday, many of whom left after the top of the ninth inning when a 99-minute rain delay interrupted a 7-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A few thousand remained until the bitter end and saw Willson Contreras ejected from the dugout before rushing onto the field to continue arguing with plate umpire Pat Hoberg. Ross intervened and pushed a visibly angered Contreras back to the dugout. He didn’t feel his catcher’s reaction was over the top.

“He’s a passionate player,” Ross said. “I love his passion. I’ve gotten thrown out of games too. That’s just part of the game. He probably has as good a feel as anybody, when you’re catching, about where the strike zone has been all day. ... I know he’s passionate.

“He was kind of passionate for a teammate there in a situation maybe he felt like a call or two didn’t go our way. I don’t know. I love everybody’s passion for the game and trying to win, for sure.”

The Cubs are 4-5 since the All-Star break and 48-51 overall with Friday’s trade deadline approaching. Alec Mills pitched five innings in a no-decision, and the usually reliable Andrew Chafin took the loss, allowing three runs without recording an out in the sixth to end his 24-inning scoreless streak, which had been the longest active one in the majors.

So what has Ross learned about himself in the last year?

“I learned to stay the course, that there’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of questions I can’t answer for (the media) that you want to know on a daily basis,” he said.

Ross had more to say, but that’s the Cliffs Notes version.

What have we learned about Ross in the last year?

He’s a player’s manager and focuses on the task at hand. He’s a better interview in person than on Zoom but still doesn’t enjoy updating the media about his players’ injuries or rehab schedules. And he uses the prefix “super” a lot (as in “super excited”) and truly enjoys what he’s doing.

As a manager, Ross is still a work in progress. It’s difficult to assess his overall performance based on a shortened 2020 season in which the Cubs won their division with a 34-26 record or the current one that included a brutal 11-game losing streak and a team hitting .226, third-worst in the majors. Entering Saturday, his team had a combined .224 average in 158 games.

Team President Jed Hoyer, the only one who really matters, repeatedly has praised Ross’s performance, and Cubs fans haven’t blamed Ross for the end-of-the-half collapse, as evidenced by the round of applause he received after Friday’s win while crossing Waveland Avenue to the team parking lot.

“As a leader, sometimes (with) adversity you lose sleep at night trying to figure how you can (make an) impact and be better,” Ross said. “And you get a day like (Friday), where we win by five runs and you go out and the fans are cheering for me. It’s nice.”

Ross’s popularity as a player helps give him the benefit of the doubt with fans, though the honeymoon won’t last forever if they don’t win.

The 2020 opener one year ago was a surreal night, with cicadas buzzing and the sounds of the “L” trains passing by easily heard on the field, just as players cheering in the dugout could be heard in the press box. Two things have remained nearly the same since that night: the Cubs’ lackluster offense and Hendricks’ consistency.

After a poor start to 2021, Hendricks settled in and entered Saturday tied for the league lead with 12 wins. His work ethic is unassailable.

“Luckily we’ve put in the work and I’ve been able to find a good groove now, but it never stops,” Hendricks said. “I’m still continually trying to get better and trying to stay in this groove and keep executing pitches.”

The Cubs have had only four 20-game winners since 1972 — Rick Reuschel in 1977, Greg Maddux in 1992, Jon Lieber in 2001 and Jake Arrieta in 2015. Hendricks has a chance to make it five in almost 50 years, though he’ll need some help, starting Monday night against the Cincinnati Reds.

“It would definitely be something to hang your hat on in a way,” Hendricks said of a 20-win season. “But the focus is always on the team wins. Me getting all these wins, I think it speaks volumes to everything else that’s going on in the games that I pitch. My focus is on consistently giving the team a chance to win, so I’ve managed the game in that way. But the defense behind me has been incredible, the run support, and every time the bullpen comes in after me they shut it down.

“You have to have that whole team effort, and whoever the win is credited to, so be it. As long as the team is winning games, that’s the focus I have.”

Hendricks, Adbert Alzolay and Mills are the only starters seemingly secure in their jobs. The scuffling Arietta will throw live batting practice Monday as the next step in his comeback from a right hamstring injury, and Trevor Williams has yet to show he’s a keeper.

Rookie Justin Steele, who excelled in a relief role for the Cubs, threw four innings for Triple-A Iowa on Friday night and has an 0.85 ERA over 10 2/3 innings in three starts, allowing three hits while striking out 10. But Ross would not entertain the idea of Steele joining the rotation until Williams and Arrieta get some more starts.

“We’ll wait and see how that goes before we put somebody in another guy’s spot who doesn’t have any experience at the big- league level as a starter,” Ross said, referring to Steele.

No rush.

With the trade deadline nearing and his team in fourth place, questions about the future aren’t going away any time soon.

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