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First 2024 Cubs-Brewers series to live up to the hype

Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell survived his first meeting against his old team this weekend and now has three weeks before his long-awaited return to Milwaukee.

Counsell continually downplayed the obvious media angle about facing his old team as predicted, and will likely try to do so again when they play in American Family Field.

Good luck to him.

“Counseling” aside, the first Cubs-Brewers series of 2024 lived up to its hype in the first two games with close affairs and strong starting pitching, leading to Sunday’s rubber match between Javier Assad and Brewers CEO Freddy Peralta. The Cubs drew six walks in five innings from Peralta, while Assad had six shutout innings in the 5-0 win.

Here are three takeaways from the weekend:

1. Cubs starters continue their dominance

Neither Hayden Wesneski nor Jameson Taillon allowed a run-in start Friday and Saturday, and the Cubs starters had a combined ERA of 3.24 heading into Sunday, second in the National League behind the Philadelphia Phillies (2.60) and fourth in the majors. As of April 14, their ERA of 2.76 was also second in the NL, behind the Phillies.

Justin Steele returns Monday night against San Diego after suffering his hamstring injury on opening day against Texas. It will be a “do-over” of sorts for Steele, who was named the Opening Day starter during spring training.

Photos: Chicago Cubs lose 3-1 to Milwaukee Brewers

“I was talking to my wife about it, I was super worried about opening day and everything surrounding it – the first game of the year, the first opening day for me,” Steele said. “And then obviously I got hurt. It was nice to get that under my belt, and now I have to do it again. I’m more excited to be back with the boys.

Steele, Shota Imanaga, Taillon and Assad will form the top four of the Cubs rotation for the foreseeable future. Counsell will have to decide how to fit in Wesneski and Ben Brown, especially after Kyle Hendricks returns from his minor league rehab stint and Jordan Wicks comes off the 10-day injured list.

Hendricks will make his second start at Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday, and barring a setback he should be ready to return next week. It will be difficult to justify moving Wesneski to the bullpen, so Brown seems like the logical choice. Brown could become a high-leverage reliever, while Adbert Alzolay tries to solve his problems in lower-leverage situations.

Cubs starter Jameson Taillon pitches during the first inning against the Brewers on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at Wrigley Field.  (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
Chicago Cubs starter Jameson Taillon pitches during the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at Wrigley Field. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

“If we can get to the point where we’re really healthy, we’re going to have to make some tougher decisions,” Counsell said Friday. “Right now we are still trying to put the collection puzzle together every day. So trying to say Ben is this or Ben is that doesn’t make sense to us at this point. But what we do know is that Ben strikes out hitters and there is a spot for Ben.

Wesneski was the bright spot after an up-and-down debut in ’23. He admitted, “I wasn’t in a good head space” during spring training and “didn’t deserve to make the team.” Now his confidence is back and he throws like old man. He received a standing ovation on Friday after being removed.

“It never gets old,” he said. “That’s what you play for. It was nice to see my family here today too. That was what I was looking for.”

Cade Horton, the top draft pick in ’22, was promoted to Iowa and made his first start there on Saturday with mixed results. Horton walked four batters in four innings while allowing two runs on two hits to take the loss.

This kind of depth is what Cubs president Jed Hoyer envisioned when he took over for Theo Epstein and began focusing on drafting and developing starting pitching after a lengthy drought since the start of the original rebuild in 2012.

2. Defensive attitude

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner backhands a ball that set up a single by Brewers' Jackson Chourio in the eighth inning on Friday, May 3, 2024 at Wrigley Field.  (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner backhands a ball hit by Milwaukee Brewers’ Jackson Chourio in the eighth inning Friday, May 3, 2024 at Wrigley Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

The Cubs have one of the best middle infield duos in baseball in shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner, but they are not infallible.

Entering Sunday, Swanson committed four errors after making 11 in 2023 and was -1 in Defensive Runs Saved after being +36 last year. Hoerner committed five errors, tied for a major league lead among second basemen after making just seven in 2023, and had a -2 DRS after leading the National League at his position with a 12 DRS last year .

Hoerner hit a routine grounder on Saturday that initially scored a single, but was later corrected. Swanson missed a sharply hit grounder on a backhand attempt that he normally would have made Saturday, but had two defensive gems on Sunday.

While Hoyer said during the Marquee broadcast on Sunday that the Cubs needed to clean up some “sloppy” play, Counsell strongly defended Swanson on Saturday, pointing out that he was briefly one of the game’s most important defensive players.

“Dansby is a very good field player,” Counsell said. “I’m very happy to have Dansby Swanson as our shortstop. We are in good shape there. Did he make some throws he didn’t want to make? Yeah… I think it’s safe to say going forward and it’s a good place to put our stock. I feel very good about that. Any other areas you are concerned about?’

No one expects perfection, but it’s fair to point out when a star player is slumping.

3. Reduction of the drawing board

Cubs design hitter Matt Mervis walks back to the dugout after striking out to end the fourth inning against the Brewers on Friday, May 3, 2024 at Wrigley Field.  (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Cubs design hitter Matt Mervis walks back to the dugout after striking out to end the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, May 3, 2024 at Wrigley Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Matt Mervis, 26, was called up from Iowa to add some left-handed pop to the lineup in the absence of Cody Bellinger. But Mervis went 3-for-26 with a .302 OPS and was demoted to Iowa on Saturday.

“It’s unfortunate,” Counsell said. “Matt has produced at a high level in the minor leagues, a very high level. He has just gone through a period where things were not happening here, so we just have to go back to the drawing board for him.”

The Cubs’ drawing board should be an Etch-A-Sketch at this point.

Mervis has hit .155 with a .257 slugging percentage in 127 plate appearances in two stints with the Cubs. In three-plus seasons at Iowa, he is hitting .287 with a slugging percentage of .556. It’s clear that Mervis can take power in the minors, but needs to show he can do the same in the big leagues.

Baseball is hard, as Counsell often notes.

But it is also a business, and the results are important.