Cubs

Cubs make All-Star splash after sloppy loss to Reds

Cubs make All-Star splash after sloppy loss to Reds

The Cubs played a sloppy game leading up to the All-Star selection show they dominated on Tuesday night, falling into a five-run hole by the third inning against a last-place Cincinnati Reds team tanking for the future.

So much of the conversation about the Cubs on talk shows and Twitter revolves around sheer panic or nothing-to-see-here scolding when you point out a flaw. Maybe that’s simply the nature of social media and this franchise’s history. But after an ugly 9-5 loss, a young, talented, banged-up group with seven All-Stars exists somewhere in between those two extremes in the middle of a 162-game season. 

With Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, the Cubs can now be the first team since the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals to have their entire infield starting the All-Star Game. Add outfielder Dexter Fowler – also voted in through the fan ballot – and the Cubs are the first team since the 1985 San Diego Padres to have five players named to start the All-Star Game. 

Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta – voted in by the players – could throw the first pitch with all the flashbulbs popping in front of an international TV audience. New York Mets manager Terry Collins also added Jon Lester to the National League pitching staff. 

The Cubs (52-31) have the hot start that generated all this All-Star buzz, creating what's now almost a double-digit cushion in the division. The infrastructure is there for what should be a very bright future. 

But this has still been a meh stretch, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals and Miami Marlins since the middle of June and getting swept by the Mets over the weekend in New York, where it felt like last year’s NL Championship Series all over again.   

Veteran pitcher John Lackey didn’t bring his “Big Boy Game” this time, zoning out on a David Ross passed ball, throwing his hands over his head in frustration and reacting too slow to cover home plate in the first inning, allowing Reds speedster Billy Hamilton to score from second base.      

Manager Joe Maddon flipped out in the second inning, got ejected for arguing “egregious” balls and strikes with home plate umpire Jerry Meals in the middle of a Ross at-bat and spent his afternoon working out, taking a steam bath and eating some raisin bread with butter.

A shaky defense also committed two errors, an inconsistent offense hit four homers but went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and Lackey gave up six runs on six hits and five walks in six innings.

Yes, Lackey felt squeezed: “It happens. Guys miss calls. I miss pitches. Nobody’s perfect out there. But the problem you run into is when guys are just adamant and not wanting to admit they could have missed it. We’re all men out here.”

A crowd of 41,310 started booing and heading toward the exits after Cincinnati trade chip Jay Bruce launched a Pedro Strop slider out toward the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer in the ninth inning.

The Cubs are 18-3 against the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates – and 34-28 versus the rest of their schedule so far – and don’t look quite as invincible anymore. Some of this is natural regression, and some of it is the 24-games-in-24-days-stretch before the All-Star break. The lineup also clearly misses Fowler as a catalyst at the top of the order while he recovers from a strained hamstring (though if the Cubs realized he was that important, they probably would have signed him before late February).  

Will you actually play in the All-Star Game?

“That’s the plan,” said Fowler, who earned his first All-Star selection with a .398 on-base percentage. “We’ll see. I’m getting pretty close, definitely getting better. Use that as an extra rehab game.”

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The Cubs hope to get healthy and find some reinforcements by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, but the biggest reasons for optimism in the second half will be all over Petco Park during next week’s All-Star festivities in San Diego. 

“It means a lot,” Maddon said. “First of all, individually, what it does for your own personal self-esteem is very valuable. There’s a lot of fan acceptance, obviously. Within that, there’s some peer acceptance. Within the industry and within the game you’ve wanted to play since you’re a kid, you’re an All-Star, man. That’s pretty sweet stuff. 

“Organizationally, it just speaks to what’s been done here the last several years. (And) I take zero credit for that. It’s just great scouting and development on the part of the Cubs, great leadership in the front office and ownership, because, really, you’re not successful unless you have all of that in place. It just doesn’t happen.

“No sports group’s going to be successful without tremendous leadership at the top. It filters down to the field. And then you got a bunch of guys that are skillful, accountable, authentic human beings. Everybody that made this team is very deserving.”

Or, as Lackey said in the middle of a season that will ultimately be judged on whether or not he gets a third World Series ring: “Good for them.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”