Cubs

Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

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Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

MILWAUKEE — Joe Maddon’s glass is always half full. But the Cubs manager has a point when he says this team hasn’t come close to clicking on all cylinders.

Maddon’s plastic cup of Blue Eyed Boy shiraz was almost empty by the time the media entered his office late Friday night after what should have been a cruise-control victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cubs survived at Miller Park, hanging on for a 7-6 win over the worst team in baseball that had several bright spots and warning signs. They blasted four home runs, got seven strong innings from Jason Hammel and endured too many anxious moments out of the bullpen.

“We have not played up to our capabilities yet, and we’re still in a decent spot,” Maddon said. “Overall, quite frankly, before the season began, if you asked for this record on this date, a lot of people would have bought into it and said: I’ll take it.

“If we had been just pitching like crazy or just hitting like crazy it wouldn’t be as attractive. But we haven’t done anything particularly great yet. But we’re gonna, because we have those kind of athletes.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon hears from MLB after ripping umpire]

The Cubs wound up needing Kris Bryant’s athleticism with two outs in the ninth inning, when the 6-foot-5 slugger hustled to first base and got rewarded with an infield single after a replay review, driving in what turned out to be the game-winning run on a three-strikeout night.

“I just want that reputation of playing hard,” Bryant said, “and respecting the game and ‘Respecting 90,’ like Joe says. That’s what I’ll continue to do.”

It mattered because closer Hector Rondon served up a three-run homer to Ryan Braun in the ninth inning — and then allowed two consecutive singles — before finally ending the game.  

“Our bullpen guys got to get this done,” Maddon said. “We’re not going anywhere without (our) bullpen being very dominant. You have to have a dominant bullpen to really win 90-plus games, and that’s our goal.”

The Cubs needed this after losing that reality-check series to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. There were moments where it looked exactly how the Cubs drew it up in the offseason.

[RELATED: For Cubs, closing the gap on Cardinals is easier said than done]

Dexter Fowler, acquired from the Houston Astros in January to be an offensive catalyst, led off the game with a home run off Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee’s top prospect entering last season and the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2014.    

Anthony Rizzo continued his elite-level season in the fourth inning by crushing a ball 425 feet into the second deck in right field for his sixth homer. Moments later, Cubs fans here started high-fiving each other after Jorge Soler launched another homer that bounced off the center-field ledge, just to the right of the batter’s eye.

With all the bullpen issues, the Cubs wound up needing this from Starlin Castro in the ninth inning, driving a ball 426 feet into left field’s second deck.

As Maddon said after going over the final stat line: “Fifteen punch(outs). Four homers. Rock and roll.”

The Cubs are 15-13 now, even with Bryant having zero homers through 21 games and Jon Lester putting up a 6.23 ERA in April. Key relievers Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez have missed time with injuries while Pedro Strop — who allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning — seems to be overworked.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Of course, the Cubs can’t bank on all the rosy predictions and best-case scenarios: What if all these young hitters don’t figure it out sooner rather than later? Do you trust the bullpen? What if Lester and/or Jake Arrieta get injured and the rotation unravels?

Those are questions for another day, because the Cubs are relevant.

“We’re not really even clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Hammel (3-1, 3.52 ERA). “It’s two things go good one night, one goes bad. Once we start putting it together, pretty special things are going to happen here. As long as we keep grinding.

“We look at every day: Win each game. And then it comes down to series. You win series, you’re going to be pretty good at the end of the fight. Obviously, we haven’t played our best baseball.”

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 Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

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.”