Cubs regroup with much-needed win and target on their backs

Cubs regroup with much-needed win and target on their backs

PITTSBURGH — The mime playing air guitar would have no comment. Anything less than a 162-win pace probably would have disappointed some fawning media members. And Donald Trump is so delusional and consistently wrong that he still probably thinks ownership is doing a “rotten job.”

But all the Cubs stationed at Camp Joe Maddon in Arizona would have taken this heading into the All-Star break: 53 wins and a seven-game lead in the National League Central.

The Cubs still need a vacation after all the karaoke jams, zoo animals, “Embrace The Target” sloganeering and a 24-games-in-24-days endurance test that showed this team won’t get an automatic bid into the playoffs.

“We did talk about it in spring training, the importance of getting off to a good start, and we did,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We have, I think, more than stubbed our toe. We probably sprained our toe. We want to avoid that, but it happens to a lot of teams. This is our time to understand adversity and how to fight through it.

“We’ll come out of it on the other side better for it.”

The Texas Rangers and New York Mets will be waiting after the All-Star break, and a few days chilling by the pool won’t magically cure the Cubs before they regroup at Wrigley Field. But this team needed a win to snap a five-game losing streak and avoid the sweep that would have left the resilient Pirates (46-43) only 5 1/2 games out in what’s become a much tighter three-team race with the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.

“We’re aware,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 4-for-5 on Sunday afternoon after almost hitting for the cycle on Saturday night. “You try not to look at it, but you know where you’re at (in the standings). No one stresses about it.

“This is what it is: Every game now in the NL Central, especially versus the Cardinals and Pirates, is a playoff game from here on out. We set ourselves up to be in a good position the second half to do what we want to do.”

That revolves around pitching, and the Cubs have gone 0-for-10 in quality starts in July. A recharged lineup gave John Lackey a two-run lead before he threw his first pitch Sunday and a 5-4 lead by the fourth inning, yet the veteran pitcher still labored through a no-decision and walked off the mound with two runners on and no outs in the seventh.

This three-game series wasn’t pretty for a Cubs team that will send seven players to the All-Star Game. The pitching staff gave up 26 runs, the defense committed five errors, a young team made multiple mental mistakes and the Pirates beat Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and $155 million lefty Jon Lester.

“Our whole staff kind of feels that (pressure),” Arrieta said. “We’ve been in kind of a lull for the past two weeks. If our guys are healthy — which we are, as far as the staff is concerned — I like our ability to go out there and pitch better.

“There are times where the guy on the other side is going to beat us on the mound. Our offense will have those nights. But if we get our guys back in the second half — and keep swinging it — we’ll be just fine.”

The Cubs raced out to a 25-6 start with dominant pitching and contributions up and down the lineup and all over the roster. The offense generated 15 hits in Game 88, with Matt Szczur delivering a pinch-hit double in the eighth inning and scoring the go-ahead run from second on Kris Bryant’s two-out line drive into left field.

“It’s nice to go into the All-Star break with a little less stress,” Bryant said. “But I think if you told us at the beginning of the year we would be in this position, any of us would take it.”

An under-siege bullpen got the last nine outs, with Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon (14th save) shutting down the Pirates at a time when Maddon’s had trouble figuring out which buttons to push.

Maddon’s endless array of “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts don’t seem quite as fresh when the Cubs are losing so much ground and dropping series to playoff contenders like the Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, Cardinals, Mets and Pirates within the last month.

But this is exactly what the Cubs asked for, painting the bull’s-eye on their chest.

“We’ve responded really well,” Maddon said, wearing his “Embrace The Target” T-shirt. “More recently, we’ve done it with less than our normal group. I do believe fatigue entered into the equation right now, which happens to everybody. But it got exceptionally difficult now with a lot of young guys playing often. Our starters just hit a little bit of a wall.

“And everybody’s coming after us hard, man. Everybody is — and I love it.”

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


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.”