Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

The Cubs won’t put any Cactus League lineups out there against the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend or script out every inning at Wrigley Field for their bullpen.

The Cubs will still have something to play for on Friday — the National League’s No. 1 seed — plus the adrenaline rush from 40,000 fans, the national-TV spotlight on Saturday afternoon (Fox) and Sunday night (ESPN) and the chance to help block their biggest rival from making the postseason.

“It has that kind of potential,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “But from my perspective, it’s our responsibility to play those games straight up.”

Even with Wednesday afternoon’s ugly 11-1 loss at Coors Field, the Cardinals have so far survived the first two legs of what could be a make-or-break road trip, splitting four games against the San Francisco Giants and taking a series from the Colorado Rockies.

That left the Cardinals (80-72) tied with the New York Mets (80-72) in the second wild-card position, with the Giants a half-game up heading into Wednesday night’s game at Dodger Stadium and what should be a head-spinning finish to this three-team race.

“We haven’t let up at all,” said Jon Lester (18-4, 2.36 ERA), who will start opposite Carlos Martinez (15-8, 3.16 ERA) on “Sunday Night Baseball.” “I feel like every team has something to play for when they play us.

“Every team is trying to be little thorns in our side, make us work and make us grind for our wins. It’s always interesting when you add the Cardinals into the mix. They’re playing for their wild-card spot and a chance to get to the postseason, so I’m sure they’ll definitely bring their A-game.”

The Cubs will use next week to experiment with their late-inning formulas — Tuesday will be Bullpen Night at PNC Park — and rotate their position players against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds with the idea of keeping them fresh for October.

“With all respect to everybody, you got to play these next three games right,” Maddon said. “Not that I don’t trust our other guys, but industry-wide you just want to be able to do that. Plus, we have a day off (on Thursday that) permits us to feel better about the guys getting that rest.

“I’ve been on both sides of it. When you’re on that other side, you definitely want to make sure that the teams that are in contention are playing against the other teams’ (perceived) best.”

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If the Cardinals can survive and advance without feeling the burnout, they could become a dangerous opponent in a best-of-five series.

St. Louis has a powerful lineup, setting an NL record with eight players with at least 15 home runs this season. Seung Hwan Oh (18 saves, 1.79 ERA) is the kind of lights-out closer the Giants desperately need.

Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — is an X-factor. On Saturday, the Cubs will get another look at Reyes, who beat them last week at Busch Stadium by throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen, giving up one hit and six walks, flashing his age-22 unpredictability.

“You can’t sleep on the Cardinals,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You know they’re a good team. They got a lot of history in the playoffs.”

The Cardinals still have their issues. Adam Wainwright (12-9, 4.57 ERA) hasn’t pitched like an ace, and Mike Leake (9-10, 4.54 ERA) hasn’t lived up to his five-year, $80 million contract. Matt Holliday hasn’t played since Aug. 11, when Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery broke his right thumb with a 94-mph fastball. A franchise known for its fundamentals now ranks 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency.

But St. Louis has already split 16 games with the Cubs and would be playing with house money against the best team in baseball in October.

“To be honest, I haven’t (been paying attention to the wild-card standings),” Lester said. “We have a lot going on here. I try to stay in our own little corner, our own little world. Especially with where we’re at, we don’t have anybody at our heels or anything.

“The biggest thing for us is kind of focusing on us. Whoever our opponent is come first round, we’ll be ready to go and prepared. If it is the Cardinals, great, we’ve seen them a lot. We know what they have. If it’s somebody else, we’ll study and we’ll prepare.”

The Cubs could help shove the Cardinals into a long offseason — or give new life to a playoff-tested team that won’t be intimidated by the idea of coming back into Wrigleyville.

“The intensity will be there,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Any time we play them, it’s a fun series. We get a lot of the Cardinals fans down here. We want to play everybody tough. Certainly, they’re in a playoff hunt, too, so we’re going to do our best to do what we do — go out there and try to win every game.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.