Cubs begin potential last stand before trade deadline with complete win in Baltimore 

BALTIMORE — With the trade deadline approaching, Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell isn’t doing the mental math in the standings or contemplating the difference between going 5-2 or 2-5 during this road trip leading into the All-Star break.

“It would be three games,” Counsell said.

That steady, unemotional style will be cited as a reason for the second-half turnaround if the Cubs somehow defy the odds and make the playoffs. If not, Counsell’s detached, rational process will be seriously questioned in the analysis of a failed season.

That’s just simply how it works in professional sports. Counsell is baseball’s highest-paid manager, and under contract through the 2028 season, so he has enormous job security and influence within the organization. But he isn’t preoccupied with the countdown to the July 30 deadline or worrying about who might get traded.

“We got a game in front of us,” Counsell said Tuesday, sitting in the visiting dugout in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “That’s how you look at it. That’s how these guys look at it. That’s how we have to look at it. You should write the other stuff. That’s your job. You should write all that other stuff. But we got to play the games. Predicting a record or ‘if we do this,’ I’m not sure what that does for us.”

The Cubs went out in the 91-degree heat and handled one of the best teams in baseball. If this 9-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles wasn’t the best win of the season, it’s right up there.

Jameson Taillon (6-4, 2.99 ERA) contained an explosive lineup, allowing two runs across six innings in what’s been an All-Star-caliber season. Ian Happ blasted a three-run homer onto Eutaw Street in the fourth inning, turning the game into a blowout and continuing his red-hot streak. Hunter Bigge had a loud cheering section for his major-league debut in the ninth inning, which saw him pump 98, 99 and 100 mph fastballs.

It was a rare night when the offense struck early and often (14 hits, five walks). The defense made some outstanding plays in the field, including a diving, game-changing stop by third baseman Miles Mastrobuoni. The bullpen operated with a little breathing room. The players certainly understand the situation.

“We need to win games,” Happ said. “But it doesn’t help to go out there and have a bunch of pressure to impact something that’s out of our control. We got to go out there and play our game and win because we’re a good enough team, because that’s what we need to do to get ourselves back in the race to be a playoff contender.”

In terms of momentum, the Cubs have their best pitchers, Shota Imanaga and Justin Steele, lined up to start the next two games at Camden Yards. The pitching staff also appears to be getting healthier. Mark Leiter Jr., the high-leverage reliever who was activated from the injured list, pitched a scoreless eighth inning. Kyle Hendricks (lower back tightness) and Javier Assad (right forearm extensor strain) are both trending toward being available for this weekend’s four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, which includes a Saturday doubleheader at Busch Stadium.

It’s never just one data point when Jed Hoyer’s front office evaluates any decision around the trade deadline. But heading into the All-Star break with a 47-51 record is more credible than being a 44-54 team in last place. Reinforcements could already be on the way with hard-throwing reliever Julian Merryweather (rib stress fracture) beginning a rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa, and Jordan Wicks and Ben Brown also among an intriguing group of pitchers hoping to be activated in mid-to-late July.

Even Counsell acknowledged the importance of inching closer toward a winning record and staying within striking distance of a wild card versus sinking 10 games under .500 and getting buried.

“That all matters,” Counsell said.

It also matters that several players, such as Happ, Taillon and Seiya Suzuki, are on expensive, medium-term contracts that include some form of no-trade protection. The two opt-out clauses in Cody Bellinger’s three-year, $80 million contract make it even harder to evaluate any potential deals involving the former MVP. In hindsight, if the Cubs were going to move Christopher Morel, that time was probably last winter.

The Cubs aren’t planning to rebuild in 2025, which narrows the scope at the trade deadline. This team doesn’t need more B-list prospects. Hoyer signed a five-year deal to replace Theo Epstein after the 2020 season and playoff baseball hasn’t returned to Wrigley Field yet. Selling is not a great option.

“We’re focused on the day-to-day here, focused on what we have to do to play that day and go and compete,” Happ said. “We’ll let the guys upstairs figure that out.”

The Cubs have had 92 games to show that they should be buyers. Counsell dismissed a suggestion that this might have been the best win of the season, pointing out there are still 70 games remaining. Orioles ace Corbin Burnes is also scheduled to pitch Wednesday, meaning any sense of momentum could be fleeting. But there is definitely — maybe finally — a sense of urgency.

“We haven’t done ourselves many favors,” Taillon said. “That being said, none of that matters. All that matters now is tomorrow. Today is already over with. We need to show up tomorrow ready to go against a really good team. We need to win games.”

(Photo of Ian Happ hitting a three-run homer in the fourth inning: Mitch Stringer / USA Today)

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