Cubs

Cubs ride momentum into showdown with Pirates thinking playoffs

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Cubs ride momentum into showdown with Pirates thinking playoffs

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs didn’t want to cash in all their trade chips for a two-month rental at the deadline when the best-case scenario might be facing Gerrit Cole on the road in a one-game playoff.

The Cubs will miss the Pittsburgh Pirates ace during a huge three-game series that begins Monday night at PNC Park, but a young team will still get a feel for playing at that high level.

“I love it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “To really ascend in a division, you have to play the better teams within your group and beat them. And to beat them where they live also is important, too. It’s really kind of fun. I think it’s a blast.”

The Cubs ride into Pittsburgh with a sense of momentum after Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, sweeping this four-game series at Miller Park and thinking about October.

[MORE: Kris Bryant undergoes concussion-protocol testing after hustle play]

That pushed the Cubs to 10 games over the .500 mark for the first time this season – and into a tie with the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild-card position.

The defending World Series champs open a four-game series at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. After this week, everyone should have a much better idea about whether or not the Cubs (57-47) really are contenders.

“They’ve been there, done that,” Maddon said. “No question. But at the same time, if you get a bunch of hungry guys coming on, that could be a pretty good position to be in, too.”

The Cubs got a quality spot start from Clayton Richard (one run allowed in six innings) on Sunday afternoon, wringing another win out of a guy who spent most of this season pitching for Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate.

The Cubs are able to line up their most accomplished pitchers – Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Dan Haren – for a Pirates team (61-43) that’s four games up in the wild-card race.

“We’re confident here that this group can get it done,” Arrieta said. “We just need to be conscious and aware of those moments when focus might start to slip mentally through the course of the game. Limit the mental mistakes. Make the plays we’re supposed to make and pitch a little bit. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]

Even if winning the division appears to be out of reach for a third-place team that trails the St. Louis Cardinals by 9.5 games, there’s still value in feeling the heat of a pennant race. It’s all part of what the Cubs are trying to build here.

Forget all the rookies in the lineup and think about it this way: In his career, Anthony Rizzo has now played in almost as many All-Star Games (two) as meaningful games after the July 31 trade deadline (three).

“You have to stretch your mind once to get to the playoffs,” Maddon said. “And then moving beyond that, it becomes more believable on an annual basis and it’s something (where) you won’t settle for anything less than that on an annual basis. It’s all part of the maturation process of the team. It’s all there.”

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.”