Cubs

Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant power Cubs in doubleheader sweep

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Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant power Cubs in doubleheader sweep

PHILADELPHIA – The Cubs hoped Kyle Schwarber would create energy and become a middle-of-the-order force, pushing teammates with his all-out style.

Schwarber is still only in his first full season of professional baseball – not there yet as an in-your-face clubhouse leader – but he is definitely back and ready to bash his way into October.

The Cubs made Kris Bryant a face of the franchise from the moment they drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013, believing his cool exterior and internal drive would help him withstand the enormous pressure in this market.

It would be a huge upset if Bryant doesn’t become the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

The Cubs are now on pace for 95 wins after Friday’s doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Schwarber announced his return with authority, crushing two home runs in a 7-3 Game 2 victory. Bryant went 5-for-10 combined, hit his 24th homer and drove in four more runs, setting a new rookie franchise record with 90 RBI.

“You would think maybe they would take a step back here or there,” said Kyle Hendricks (7-6, 4.08 ERA), the winning pitcher in Game 2. “But they just keep hitting. It’s fun to watch. Especially for how young they are – (to) produce like this – it’s unbelievable.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta gearing up for 20 wins, Cy Young case and playoffs]

Schwarber blasted Alec Asher’s 91-mph first-pitch fastball out onto the center-field concourse in the first inning. Schwarber again jumped Asher – who spent most of the season on the Triple-A level – by driving a first-pitch slider into the left-center field seats for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Schwarber got his uniform dirty…wiping out as he turned at first base. He looked back, picked himself up off the ground and smiled as he jogged toward home plate. Teammates pointed and laughed from the dugout.

“A lot of snipers,” Schwarber said. “I tried to do the safe sign and I had to get up and run.”

“He crushes ‘em,” Bryant said. “It’s fun watching him. I mean, he fell rounding first base. It’s just like we’re so young and we don’t really care about anything.

“That’s just what we do.”

The Cubs held a 10-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card while the defending World Series champs played on the West Coast late Friday night. Heading into next week’s showdown at PNC Park, the Cubs now trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by only two games for home-field advantage in that wild-card playoff.

“The consensus around here – everybody’s thinking about October,” Hendricks said. “We’re that close. We can smell it. You never want to take anything for granted, of course, but we’re in a good spot. And we’re all looking forward to it.”

Schwarber is a huge reason why the Cubs (82-58) caught fire in the second half. Since the All-Star break, he’s generated 14 homers, 35 RBI and 38 runs scored.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

More than that, Schwarber has been a shot of adrenaline for this team. He slammed headfirst into the Budweiser sign on the left-field wall, making a running catch in the second inning to rob Ryan Howard.

Schwarber didn’t slip in the fifth inning, showing off his speed by scoring from first base on Chris Coghlan’s double off the wall in left-center field.

The biggest takeaway: Schwarber didn’t look bothered by the strained rib cage that sidelined him for almost a week. He also didn’t show any signs of rust after Wednesday’s 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Just more comfortable in the box,” Schwarber said. “I didn’t have any doubts. That first game back, obviously, I was upset with it. But it was also encouraging knowing that I wasn’t having any side effects.”

Bryant has found a way to ride out all the ups and downs and get locked in with runners in scoring position, hitting .304 with a .932 OPS in those clutch situations.

“When there’s people on base, he becomes an even better hitter,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s been obvious from the beginning of the year. You get guys with that kind of mentality, it makes all the difference in the world.”

The Cubs trail the Cardinals by six games in the division and have 22 left in a season so far defined by this accelerated youth movement.

“This feels like it’s always a playoff game,” Schwarber said, “even though the atmosphere in the first game wasn’t like it. But we were treating it as if it’s a playoff game. We’re trying to get the wild card at our place or catch the Cardinals.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

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.”