Cubs

Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler isn’t a finished product or the most polished hitter, but he’s someone the other team has to account for, a fast-twitch athlete with the power to change a game with one swing.

That’s exactly what Soler did for the Cubs during Wednesday night’s 6-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, crushing Jimmy Nelson’s 93-mph fastball and driving it into the back of the left-center field bleachers, nearly hitting the bottom of the video board with a three-run homer.

That became the exclamation point to a five-run, first-inning blitz that allowed Jon Lester to go into cruise-control mode and gave the bullpen a breather the day after a doubleheader. Soler might not ever be able to do this for 150 games and 600 at-bats a year – the injury-prone label sticks – but he can be a dangerous hitter in a short playoff series.

Just look at what Soler did to the St. Louis Cardinals last October, setting a new major-league record by getting on base in his first nine career postseason plate appearances and hitting two homers in four games.

“Presence,” said Lester (13-4, 2.86 ERA), who pitched into the seventh inning and limited the Brewers to one run and three hits. “He’s a big feller.

“(It) adds to that pitcher having to work to get to the bottom of that order, (because) guys aren’t allowed to take breaks. That’s the biggest thing. Tonight (against the Brewers), you get to the bottom of the order, you’re like: ‘OK, I got this guy, I got this guy, then I got the pitcher.’ And you feel like you can navigate. I don’t feel like you can do that with our lineup.

“It’s very, very deep. And I think that plays well into October, and hopefully to where we can use different matchups as far as the DH.”

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Yes, the didn’t-come-here-for-a-haircut Cubs are already thinking about the World Series, moving to 33 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season and keeping a 12.5-game lead over the Cardinals in the division.

Soler embraced that playoff pressure last year, admitting he played with sharper focus, and the Cubs might need another big bat with Kyle Schwarber unable to hammer pitches onto video boards and Jason Heyward enduring one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball this year.

“When George is swinging it well, he’s a huge part of this team,” said David Ross, who also homered off Nelson in the third inning. “He’s a presence with the power he has – and how well he hits lefties – and now he’s hitting righties. He’s just not missing the ball. You can tell he’s locked in.

“It makes our lineup that much deeper. When he was out, from the catcher’s standpoint, you see that the lineup’s shortening. Once you get past a certain guy, then it’s a little easier to navigate the lineup.”

After missing almost two months with a strained hamstring, Soler has gone 11-for-29 with a double, four homers and 10 RBI in 10 games since coming off the disabled list, adding another dimension to the best team in baseball.

“That’s why the ball is being struck as well as it is – he’s really staying in the zone,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s been very patient. That’s something (our hitting coaches) promote with all of our hitters. But with him, it’s really obvious. When he’s in the zone, when he’s not permitting the pitcher to expand, he’s really good.”  

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.”