Nationals force Cubs to focus and raise their game


Nationals force Cubs to focus and raise their game

WASHINGTON – The Cubs like to say they can play with anyone, but that could mean anything for a young team learning how to win and trying to get beyond survival mode at this level.

The Washington Nationals have already built The Foundation for Sustained Success, winning 98, 86 and 96 games across the last three years and coming into this season as World Series favorites.

The Cubs seem to get up for teams like Washington, knowing that’s what they want to become. They hung on for a 2-1 victory as Thursday night turned into Friday morning at Nationals Park.

“There will be times – and I think there has been times – where we’ve come out a little lackadaisical maybe all across the board,” Jake Arrieta said. “But those things have been tightened up. Especially when you play teams like this, (you) have to be on top of your game if you want to come out ahead.” 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

After a rain delay that lasted almost two hours, the Cubs jumped Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez for two runs in the first inning, with Junior Lake flipping his bat again after working a bases-loaded walk.

There were no fireworks as Arrieta sliced through Washington’s lineup, allowing one run in six innings, with eight strikeouts against zero walks, before turning the game over to the bullpen.

“We know who our opposition is,” said Arrieta (5-4, 3.04 ERA). “We know what they’re capable of bringing to the table, so that definitely will elevate our game.”

The Cubs (28-24) already took two series from the Pittsburgh Pirates and split another with a team that’s made the playoffs two years in a row. The New York Mets – the pitching-rich bizarro Cubs – got swept out of Wrigley Field in the middle of May.  

[MORE: Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo]

The Cubs have also missed opportunities, losing two series to the Milwaukee Brewers in May – before and after they fired manager Ron Roenicke – and going 1-for-3 this week against the dysfunctional Miami Marlins.  

“That’s not been lost on me,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We have to do better, absolutely. We have to be better. I don’t want to be that team that plays to the level of competition. We got to bring our game every night.”

That’s why Anthony Rizzo didn’t want to read too much into his game-ending pick-off play at first base, or splitting four tight games with the Nationals since Memorial Day.

“I messed up on a bunt play,” Rizzo said. “We let a ball get by in the outfield. We tried to stab ourselves in the foot today, and we overcame it.

“We really just got to take care of the ball and the routine plays and manufacture runs better. (Then) we’ll be on our way. But we know we’re good.”  

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.