Cubs

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.

“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”

Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).

Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).

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The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.

“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.

“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.

“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”

The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).

A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).

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The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.

“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.

“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”

The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.

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

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USA TODAY

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.