Cubs

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

ST. LOUIS – When the playoff ride finally ended for the Cubs last October, Jorge Soler told Dave Martinez: “This is the guy I want to be. This is the guy I should be.”

The St. Louis Cardinals witnessed that monster performance in the National League divisional round, watching Soler become the first player in major-league history to reach base safely in his first nine postseason plate appearances.  

This is what the Cubs envisioned when they won the bidding war in the summer of 2012 and finalized a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract: Soler hitting two homers, driving in four runs and drawing six walks in those four pressure-packed games against the Cardinals.  

As manager Joe Maddon’s bench coach, Martinez has to put out fires in the clubhouse, use his bilingual skills and sometimes tell players what they might not want to hear.

In this case, Martinez recalled this week at Busch Stadium, “I (told Soler): ‘Absolutely, no question.’ The next thing you got to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’

“That’s what we’re doing now with him, making sure that he understands that you are that guy. There’s no ‘can’ or ‘will.’ You are that guy. Believe it – and that guy will happen.” 

The Cubs are going with positive reinforcement after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injuries created an opportunity in left field for Soler, who admitted he drifted at times before finding a higher level of concentration during the playoffs.      

“He’s getting there,” Maddon said. “His focus is improving. He’s understanding what it takes to be a regular player on the major-league level. The talent is prodigious. We all know that. But he needs to understand the mental side of this thing. And he’s working very hard at it. I give him credit.”  

There are certain matchups where the Cubs will sit Soler and Maddon likes to keep everyone involved anyway. The breaks might help keep Soler healthy after a series of injuries limited him to only 151 minor-league games between 2012 and 2014. 

Maddon also sees Matt Szczur as a late-inning defensive replacement for Soler, who isn’t quite comfortable making plays at the wall and sometimes gets caught in between, not sure when to stay back and when to charge the ball.      

Soler – who had a reputation for being a patient hitter with a plan as an amateur player coming out of Cuba – is hitting .200 (8-for-40) with two homers and six walks against 11 strikeouts through 14 games.

“The biggest thing for him is accepting his walks,” Martinez said. “If he starts doing that consistently, we really feel like he’s going to hit and the power’s going to come. People see him and they (project) with that tremendous physique. But in reality, he’s still very young (24) and he’s learning.

“He’s got so much potential to do so many different things. We’re just excited that he’s actually now really focusing on taking his walks and swinging at pitches that he can hit.”

The Cardinals know what that could mean if Soler gets locked in again hitting behind Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.  

“(When) you talk about the way (our) lineup is – the relentless at-bats – that’s a mental component,” Maddon said. “That’s not physical. You can stay in the cage as long as you want – or take as many swings as you want – that ain’t gonna matter. 

“It’s about what you’re thinking and those are really well-thought-out at-bats by our group. And we got to get George (going) because he’s very capable of that. We’ve seen it in the past.

“If we get him there with those really strong mental at-bats, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”