Cubs

Message sent: In fight for playoffs, Cubs beat up Cardinals

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Message sent: In fight for playoffs, Cubs beat up Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – This is the type of environment that normally gives a young team nightmares and causes so much anxiety for Cubs fans watching back home on TV and venting their frustrations on Twitter.  

But this was about as stress-free as it gets against the best team in baseball, the Cubs in cruise control during Monday afternoon’s 9-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.  

If Labor Day is a significant mile marker for the 162-game marathon, the Cubs are now 79-57 and within two games of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the chance to host a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field. What a way to kick off an 11-games-in-11-days road trip through St. Louis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. 

“I don’t know if anyone’s really just settling on the second wild card,” winning pitcher Dan Haren said afterward. “I think guys seem to want to push for more.”

Message sent. It started at the top with Dexter Fowler, who led off the game by driving Lance Lynn’s 92-mph fastball out to right field for his 17th home run in what’s becoming a great platform year for the centerfielder.

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber wants to return for Cubs-Cardinals showdown]

Manager Joe Maddon has a simple reminder for Fowler before each at-bat: “You go, we go.” Fowler added a two-out, two-run double in the second inning, pushing his OPS to .986 since the All-Star break.  

That’s part of the bigger story for a Cubs team that got swept here in late June, scoring four runs in 28 innings and inspiring Maddon to invite Simon the Magician to perform inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse before the next game against the New York Mets.

“Our team’s entirely different,” Maddon said. “We’re playing with a lot more confidence. We believe a lot more that we can do this now. It’s one thing to think you can – and another thing to believe that you can. I think we’re at the point where we believe that we can do this.” 

“We’re totally different,” Fowler said. “The guys are maturing. The young guys coming up, they know they’re supposed to be here. And they’re playing the part.”

In front of another sellout crowd (45,986), the Cubs knocked out Lynn (11-9, 3.12 ERA) with one out in the third inning and showed why they are a force to be reckoned with in October – and potentially for years to come as a rising power in the National League.   

By the time Addison Russell’s three-run homer flew 402 feet over the wall in left-center field, the Cubs led 8-0 in the third inning. At the age of 21, the new franchise shortstop has 13 homers and 24 doubles for a win-now team. 

“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” Russell said. “This city is definitely behind this team (here and) we definitely have to jump out. And whenever we’re ahead, we just have to bury it.”

[RELATED: Cubs think Carl Edwards Jr. can be impact pitcher for stretch run]

That gave Haren some breathing room, allowing him to be aggressive and throw strikes in what turned out to be his best start in a Cubs uniform since that July 31 deadline trade with the Miami Marlins. 

Haren (9-9, 3.73 ERA) – who was originally drafted by St. Louis way back in 2001 – accounted for seven shutout innings and even chipped in with a single, a run scored and a sacrifice fly on a day where the Washington Nationals dropped to 8.5 games back in the wild-card race.

The Cubs have five games remaining against the Cardinals but still trail their biggest rival by 7.5 games in the division.

“It seems like a lot of games,” Haren said. “The best way to just look at it is: Try to win as many as possible and see what happens. I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re scoreboard-watching. But it’s the time of year where you’re definitely checking on how the Nationals do, the Pirates do. 

“We play ‘em enough to where…if we go on a really good run, we could do something.” 

Maddon’s one-day-at-a-time mantra doesn’t leave that much room for statement games, but he understood the Cubs would have to do something different after losing six of their first seven games at Busch Stadium this season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the stretch run, Cubs fans!] 

“We have to learn to play well in this venue,” Maddon said. “You have to become more comfortable in the venue. And then you play your normal game there. And then you compete with this team.”

ESPN kept the Cardinals up late on Sunday night, forcing them into a quick turnaround with Monday’s first pitch at 1:15 p.m. Lynn hadn’t pitched since Aug. 29 while dealing with a sprained ankle. A lineup already missing Matt Holliday and Matt Adams had Kolten Wong as a late scratch with a calf issue and Randal Grichuk in a limited role coming off an elbow injury.  

The Cubs will find out if St. Louis is vulnerable. 

“You got to get the team in front of you first before you can really focus on the next one,” Maddon said. “Of course, I’ve said from the beginning that was our objective – to win the division. But you got to catch the group in front of you and then you move on to the next one. Let’s just play tomorrow like we played today.”

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.”