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Up next? Chicago Cubs have a measuring-stick series for October against the MLB-best Atlanta Braves. – The Denver Post

The best team in baseball comes to Wrigley Field on Friday when the Atlanta Braves meet the Chicago Cubs for a three-game series.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson faces his former teammates for the first time since signing a seven-year, $177 million deal in December, and the Cubs get a chance to prove their recent 13-3 stretch isn’t just a byproduct of a soft part of the schedule.

If not for Lollapalooza, the Cubs-Braves series might be the hottest ticket in town. After their 5-3 victory against the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs are 30-17 since June 9, the second-best winning percentage in baseball behind the Braves’ .705 (32-13).

They’re 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and two games back of the third wild-card spot.

It’s a proverbial measuring-stick series for a Cubs team that’s barely over .500 but looking more and more like it could do damage in the postseason if it makes it — like last year’s Philadelphia Phillies. This week’s series against the Reds has brought a playoff feel to Wrigley that hasn’t been felt since 2019.

“I know we’ve hit a lot of home runs when I’m singing ’Whoomp! (There It Is)’ in the way home in the car,” manager David Ross said Thursday. “That’s always a good sign it was really loud that day. … This place when it starts to rock, you can’t ignore.”

Swanson knew what it was like to have a national following in Atlanta and was ready to see if Cubs Nation was as loyal. He quickly discovered it’s much the same.

“Cubs fans obviously travel really well,” he recently told me. “Cubs fans are everywhere. Braves fans are also everywhere — (airing games on) TBS and everything growing up, right? It’s definitely a nationwide brand, and they’re definitely in a place you wouldn’t imagine them (traveling).

“I’ve been very fortunate to play for two top-notch organizations with great fan bases. They love them some Cubbies here, which is cool.”

Cody Bellinger has been the Cubs’ MVP this season, but the addition of Swanson has been equally important. The Braves don’t regret the decision to let him leave as a free agent after reportedly offering him a six-year, $100 million extension last summer. They haven’t skipped a beat with Orlando Arcia moving into the role and earning the starting National League shortstop nod in the All-Star Game.

But Swanson has no regrets either. He bet on himself and won, getting a better offer from the Cubs to become a clubhouse leader and face of the franchise, and he’s exceeding expectations in his first year.

Most experts pegged him as No. 4 last winter among the so-called “Big Four” free-agent shortstops behind Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa. With two months left in the season, Swanson has outperformed the other three as well as almost every shortstop in the game. His 12 defensive runs saved entering Thursday were second-most among shortstops, while his 3.8 WAR also ranked second behind the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wander Franco (4.1).

Ross’ decision to move Swanson down in the lineup after mostly batting him second early on has been one the manager’s best moves. The Cubs have scored 291 runs since June 9, their most in a 46-game stretch since they tallied 295 runs from June 24-Aug. 4, 1935.

Whether the Cubs can sustain their recent level of play will decide whether they’re October-worthy. Two of their starters have struggled of late, with Marcus Stroman going on the injured list Wednesday with right hip inflammation and Drew Smyly posting an 8.40 ERA and yielding 10 home runs in 30 innings over his last seven appearances, including five starts.

Cubs President Jed Hoyer didn’t address the rotation issues at the trade deadline, leaving Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad as possible fill-ins down the stretch.

Kyle Hendricks is slated to start Friday’s opener against left-hander Max Fried, with Justin Steele going Sunday against Charlie Morton. Saturday’s replacement for Stroman is listed as TBD.

It’s easy for Cubs fans to get excited about the offensive surge that led to 36 runs in two games against Reds pitching, their most in a two-game span since scoring 43 combined runs on June 29-30, 1897, which included a 36-run outburst.

But the Cubs will have their hands full against a Braves staff ranked second in the National League, while Cubs pitchers will have to stop the league’s top-scoring offense.

Ross has more lineup flexibility with the addition of Jeimer Candelario, a switch-hitter who can play first and third. It’s a small sample size, obviously, but after going 8-for-9 in his first two games, he’s on pace to join the list of Cubs acquisitions who immediately made impressions in a race, such as Gary Gaetti in 1998, Jim Edmonds in 2008 and Nick Castellanos in 2019.

Ross also has been sitting Seiya Suzuki more often against right-handers, using Mike Tauchman in right field, as he did Thursday. Suzuki has hit .212 with a .590 OPS since June 15, failing to live up to the hype that surrounded the five-year, $85 million deal with a full no-trade clause he signed in March 2022.

Ross said the Cubs need Suzuki to “swing the bat well,” adding he would play “meaningful” games down the stretch. But Ross also reduced playing time for Trey Mancini and Patrick Wisdom this season, so Suzuki is just the latest example of a semi-regular having to earn his place in the lineup.

“The mindset has changed for us a little bit,” Ross said. “Every advantage we can take advantage of we’re going to try, whether that’s (using analytical) information or playing time or day-after-night rest, maximizing the guys swinging the bats well and just juggling as best as I possibly can.”

It’s all about performance from here. That’s how it should always be in baseball, but that ethos seldom exists any more in this age of multiyear contracts of eight- and nine-figure salaries.

It’s up to the players to look in the mirror and be ready to play when called upon. Ross believes this bunch understands that philosophy.

“That’s one of my favorite things about this group,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the role is. Guys come to work every single day with a mission to get better … even when they’re not in there.”


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