Cubs head to St. Louis with something to prove against Cardinals


Cubs head to St. Louis with something to prove against Cardinals

Let's go.

That's the Cubs' marketing slogan for the 2015 season and it's also Joe Maddon's attitude with his team facing one of the biggest series of the season - a three-game set with the Cardinals down in St. Louis.

"It should be a blast," Maddon said. "Let's go. Let's go get 'em. It's the most fun part of the year."

Before the Cubs went out and finished off a sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks Sunday at Wrigley Field, Maddon sat inside the air-conditioned cramped interview room and spoke at length about how he hopes his players aren't looking at this series with the Cardinals as a difficult moment.

He wants them to be excited, but to also process everything going on "because we expect it to happen in the years to come."

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Maddon is also preparing to take on baseball's best team without rookie sensation Kyle Schwarber in the lineup. Schwarber is dealing with a rib injury and while he already said his goal is to return for Monday's Labor Day matinee at Busch Stadium, Maddon needs to gameplan without Schwarber until he gets the green light.

The Cubs go into this series trailing the Cardinals by almost 10 games and with only four weeks left in the season, winning the NL Central is going to be difficult.

But Maddon and the Cubs want to make a statement to their divisional rival.

"We need to put a little doubt in their mind that we can beat them even in their place," Kyle Hendricks said.

"We can beat anybody," Miguel Montero said. "We just have to prove it. We can say we can beat them and we have the better team, but there's only one way to find out. Let's win it."

As the young and inexperienced Cubs have entered the stretch run, Maddon has continually talked about having a mindset focused on one day at a time, going on a bunch of "one-game winning streaks." The Cubs had a "one-game winning streak" Sunday and Maddon's goal is to do the same Monday and keep going with that mindset.

But Maddon also admits the next step for the Cubs is to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis, which could do wonders for this team moving forward.

"You've gotta beat 'em in their ballpark," he said. "I've been through this before. When you're playing really good teams like that, you eventually have to beat them in their own ballpark. And that matters.

"We played well down there a lot and we've given up leads late. If we grab the lead, we've gotta learn how to hold on to it there there. That's the next learning step for us."

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The Cubs' playoff odds sit around 98 percent, thanks to a 7.5-game lead over the Washington Nationals for the second NL wild card. But their goal right now is to "get over that hump," as Hendricks said, against the Cardinals.

The Cubs are a different team than they were at the end of June, when they were swept out of Busch Stadium by the Cardinals, scoring just four runs in the three games. That series prompted Maddon to get that magician for the clubhouse in New York. The Cubs have gone 39-22 since.

The clubhouse may be packed with rookies and young players who haven't been through a pennant race before, but the Cubs are heading into the series with the confidence of a team that's hitting its stride at the right time and the understanding they can stick with what's been working.

"There's no need to change anything," Kris Bryant said. "No need to get all hyped up for it. It's just another baseball game that we're gonna go out and try to win."

Said Montero: "They got the best record in baseball for a reason. We just gotta keep playing the way we've been playing and the rest will take care of itself. We can't put that much pressure on ourselves, either."

David Ross is a seasoned veteran with a World Series ring and 14 years of experience in the big leagues. He was brought in to help coach along the youngsters in the clubhouse and as Maddon continues to preach a mindset on only the task at hand, Ross sees it paying dividends.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans!]

"We know we're a good team," he said. "But they go out and prove it every day. They grind at-bats, they know what it takes. It's a fun group to be a part of.

"I don't think we're looking too far ahead or anything like that. It's a good team and we still got a lot of growing to do, which is scary.

"Isn't that scary? We can get better."

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.