Cubs

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

“What’s happened?” Jason Heyward said, repeating back part of a reporter’s question. “Nothing happened. Baseball happened.”

It was only fitting that “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk threw out the first pitch and led the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Maybe the Cubs aren’t quite that desperate – and would never admit it even if they were in crisis mode – but the Milwaukee Brewers had only one realistic way to stay relevant in the National League Central race: Sweep the defending World Series champs.

Mission accomplished for the upstart Brewers team the Cubs allowed to hang around into September and gain more and more confidence. The flip-flopping St. Louis Cardinals – sellers one day, buyers in another deal, holding auditions for the future while trying to compete now – have also closed to within two games of first place.

The Bears losing their opener to the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Soldier Field – and all the Monday morning quarterbacking – will give the Cubs some cover during their day off. But what could have been a four-game lead over the Brewers disappeared with a 3-1 loss in front of 40,113.

“If you go over there and ask that clubhouse what happened to them when they got swept by Cincinnati (last week), it’s the way the game goes,” said Heyward, the $184 million Gold Glove outfielder with a .259 batting average who is always available at his locker to answer questions.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, OK, so what,’ but that’s just a part of the game. Teams are going to pitch well sometimes. Sometimes, you’re not going to hit well. Sometimes, balls are going to go at people. Sometimes, (that’s) going to be what it is.”

The Cubs are getting what they deserve for all their inconsistencies – a stressful finish where 11 of their last 19 games are against either Milwaukee or St. Louis. The Cubs also have enough of an off-the-field reputation when it comes to rainouts and game times that the Brewers could make themselves feel slighted and turn those petty behind-the-scenes disputes into part of the narrative.

“We’ve been in a tight race all year,” rookie Ian Happ said. “Just keep playing good baseball and see where it shakes out at the end.”

The Brewers lined up their top three starters – Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies – and limited the Cubs to three runs total in 27 innings. The first point the Cubs led all weekend came during Sunday’s second inning, when No. 8 hitter/backup catcher Rene Rivera lifted what looked like a routine flyball to right field. It carried over the head of Hernan Perez, who stuck out his glove and watched the ball bounce away for a questionable RBI double.   

“They got us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We were just unable to string together any kind of hits, and then our power’s been negated a bit.

“If you look around baseball, it happens to every team at some point. It’s contagious to hit as well as it is contagious to not hit. You got to just keep working your way through it. It’s going to come back to us. We’re going to start hitting again.”

After pinch-hitter Alex Avila struck out swinging at All-Star closer Corey Knebel’s 97-mph fastball to leave Heyward stranded at second base and secure the sweep, the Cubs played reggae music in their clubhouse and looked forward to a day off after playing 20 games in 20 days – and ahead to what will ultimately define their season.

“You say ‘gave up three games,’ whatever,” Heyward said. “They had a great series. That’s that.

“That’s the name of the game right now – find a way to get it done. Nobody’s going to care at the end of the year. It’s just: ‘Are you in or are you not?’ And no doubt that all the teams right now in our division that still have a chance are doing the best we can to get in.

“These games are big, of course, but they’re over with.”

Why Joe Maddon sees Anthony Rizzo coming out of his slump

Why Joe Maddon sees Anthony Rizzo coming out of his slump

CLEVELAND — It goes down as two line drives in the scorebook.

Anthony Rizzo has been mired in a season-long slump (OK, that's a little dramatic given it's still not even May yet and he missed more than a week with a back injury), but he may be showing signs of getting out of it thanks to a couple of weak groundballs.

Rizzo finished Tuesday's 10-3 win over the Indians with two hits in his final two at-bats, though one hit barely made it past the pitcher's mound and the other barely made it to the outfield grass.

In fact, Rizzo's exit velocities on both balls combined was 109.2 mph, or 8 mph less than Kyle Schwarber's 117 mph homer in the second inning Tuesday.

So how can a 35.5 mph jam-shot with a hit probability of 8 percent get a player like Rizzo going?

It's all about the hands.

"When I was a hitting coach, I swear, if one of my better hitters got jammed his first at-bat, I went up to him and I said, 'I promise that's at least two line drives tonight,'" Joe Maddon relayed before Wednesday's game.

"My explanation of getting jammed is that you make a mistake with your bottom hand. Your bottom hand gets too far out, you expose the weak part of the bat to the ball, thus you get jammed. That's not a bad way to go. 

"But if you're always coming open too soon, exposing the fatter part of the bat to that particular pitch, eventually they're going to go further away. So anything you hit well is gonna be a foul ball more than likely or rolled over. So this is a better method to go — staying inside the ball, getting the head of the bat there."

Maddon pointed to how Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter and how they made/make a living based off keeping their hands inside a ball and driving it to center or the other way.

That's what Maddon wants to see from not just Rizzo, but all the Cubs hitters. It's what the manager has been preaching all season, especially the last week or so, as the Cubs have seen better offensive results.

The Cubs entered play Wednesday winners of four of their last five games while the offense has cruised to a .342 average and 9 runs/game in that span. 

However, they've been doing a lot of that while Rizzo still doesn't look like Rizzo. 

He went on the disabled list with a .107 batting average and though he raised it 67 points in the six games since returning from injury, it was with only a modest .240 average in the last week with zero extra-base hits. Rizzo has just one extra-base hit on the season — a homer in the very first game of the season on March 29.

For a guy that's been remarkably consistent in his career, you can bet on Rizzo's numbers normalizing in the long run, which would be a big boost to a Cubs team currently without Kris Bryant.

And maybe it really will be a ball off the fists that traveled roughly 75 feet that gets Rizzo in a groove.

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

CLEVELAND — The Cubs will play a second straight game without Kris Bryant, but that doesn't mean fans should start panicking.

Bryant hasn't played since getting hit in the head in the top of the first inning in Sunday's game with a 96 mph fastball.

Bryant has been cleared by doctors in Colorado and Cleveland and will meet with the Cubs team doctor Thursday in Chicago. 

The Cubs kept their MVP third baseman out of the lineup Tuesday to give him an extra day of rest, initially hoping he'd be back Wednesday before deciding Tuesday night they should give him another day.

"He's not bad, he's fine," Joe Maddon said. "It's just one of those things. He's been seeing the doctors. There's nothing awful. It's just a matter of getting him ready to play.

"I'm not hearing anything bad. Not at all. I really anticipate good soon. If anything went the other way, I think we'd be surprised."

Head injuries are very tricky and sometimes symptoms can show up days after the initial trauma. That doesn't appear to be the case here with Bryant, but the Cubs also don't want him to rush back until he's ready physically, mentally and emotionally.

The key word there is "trauma," because it was a traumatic experience for Bryant and something he'll have to come to terms with mentally before he can step back in that batter's box.

"Sometimes that's necessary," Maddon said. "Again, he got hit, I didn't. I'm listening to him right now. So whatever he says, I'm very amenable to right now. 

"I could sense [Tuesday] he wasn't quite ready. ... I don't anticipate any long delay."

The Cubs started Tommy La Stella for a second straight game Wednesday in Bryant's place. La Stella played third base Tuesday and was originally slotted for the same spot Wednesday before a last-minute change moved him to second with Javy Baez playing the hot corner.