Cubs get playoff education in facing Bumgarner and Kershaw


Cubs get playoff education in facing Bumgarner and Kershaw

SAN FRANCISCO – Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw are the kind of big-time pitchers the Cubs will have to go through in the playoffs.

This is Ph.D-level stuff at Joe Maddon’s Cub University, facing last year’s World Series MVP on Thursday afternoon at AT&T Park and getting last season’s National League MVP/Cy Young Award winner on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

The San Francisco Giants won the first series on this West Coast trip, shutting the Cubs down with Bumgarner and three different relievers in a 9-1 game that never felt particularly close. The defending champs are now 5.5 games behind the Cubs for the second wild card.

The Cubs still headed to Los Angeles at 20 games above .500, and their lineup has been a huge part of this second-half surge, with Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber right in the middle of the Rookie of the Year discussion and Addison Russell emerging as the franchise shortstop.

The question becomes: Can they keep doing it against elite starters when everything is magnified in October?

“We’re not free-swingers,” Maddon said. “We’ll accept our walks. We strike out. But it’s not like we’re just chasing all the time. We’re able to see pitches. A lot of times, we’re able to build pitch counts up (against) good starters.

“That’s where I have a lot of confidence in this young group. We’re not just up there hacking. We have a really good game plan.”

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Bumgarner (16-6, 2.97 ERA) struck out 12 of the 22 batters he faced and the Giants were able to shut down their ace after 98 pitches. MadBum allowed one run on two hits in six innings.

“Just funky,” Bryant said. “When you have a guy (with) that kind of crossfire, it’s a tough at-bat. You can’t really get comfortable in there. He’s the best of the best.”

“It is a learning process,” Schwarber said. “You get an idea. You have to make that continuous adjustment as you keep facing these guys.”

It won’t get any easier against Kershaw (10-6, 2.29 ERA), another lefty in the best-pitcher-on-the-planet conversation.

“Just be the same every day and come in and battle, no matter who’s on the mound,” veteran outfielder Chris Denorfia said. “We love competing against the best – and these guys are – but I think more than anything we need to learn to just be ourselves and not try to do too much.

“(That’s) what you got to get good at in this game – the mental part. (It’s) knowing what you’re good at hitting and trying to look for those pitches and hit ‘em. No matter who’s throwing ‘em.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs are actually 5-2 in games started by Cy Young Award winners this season, winning against Kershaw, Jake Peavy, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke and Bartolo Colon while losing to Peavy and Max Scherzer.

“You got to get used to it,” Maddon said. “This is what you’re playing for. You’re playing to get to October. When you do, you’re going to play against good teams with really good pitching. That’s how they got there, too. To this point – and I really anticipate it will continue – our guys have handled it very well."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.