As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

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USA TODAY

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

Jed Hoyer is right: You can't make any claims about these Cubs one way or the other.

It's too early and the weather/schedule has been far too wacky for any strong statements about who, exactly, the 2018 Cubs are. 

"I don't think you can really evaluate much so far," Hoyer said. "There's no rhythm to the season yet. The game's been played in terrible condition for the most part.

"Positively or negatively, I don't think you can draw big conclusions based on what's happened. ... There's a lot of games to be played. We'll forget this time quickly and remember what it's like to be in [Wrigley] when it's not freezing. It's been a little choppy and hard to evaluate, for sure."

You can shout "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" from the Wrigleyville rooftops all you'd like, but that's not even why it's impossible to draw conclusions about the identity of this team.

The 8-8 Cubs have already had five postponements due to weather to start the 2018 season, including four on the recent homestand (and a makeup game on Thursday, which was originally scheduled as a travel day). The last time this franchise had five games in April called on account of weather was back in 1967 and there are still another 10 days left in the month for the weather to possibly mess with. 

This will surely go down as one of the oddest starts to a season in Cubs history, with a 17-inning game played on the second day of the year, followed by a 10-inning game the next day. The Cubs were supposed to start the campaign with six straight games, but the last contest in Cincinnati was postponed, so they got an impromptu two-day break, which was good at the time for Anthony Rizzo to rest his ailing back and the bullpen to catch their breath.

After a four-game series in Milwaukee's domed stadium in which the Cubs finally looked to be showing some rhythm, the weather reared its ugly head again.

The 11-day homestand featured four postponed games, maybe the worst weather game in Wrigley Field history (Saturday) and yet another impromptu two-day break. This week alone, the Cubs played two games in a five-day span.

All of that has led to an inconsistent product.

One day, the Cubs look like an offensive juggernaut, going 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, chasing an opposing starter before the fifth inning and scoring in bunches, as they showed Thursday in the 8-5 win over the Cardinals.

But in half the games this year, they can't seem to buy a hit against pitchers most Cubs fans haven't even heard of.

One day, the starting rotation flashes its elite potential, only to get battered around the next night.

"We haven't pitched very well," said Jon Lester, who allowed only an unearned run across six innings Thursday. "I'm not gonna speak for hitters; I don't like to cross that line by any means. But I feel like we've had some really good offensive games and our pitching staff as a whole hasn't stepped up.

"I think things will get better if we can get some games in. You got pitchers that are going on 6, 7, 8 days rest all the time. It's hard to get in that rhythm, especially when it's cold out. It's hard to find the ball; it's hard to find that release point."

Lester isn't one for making excuses and the Cubs aren't doing that. Every team in baseball has to go through these head-scratching weather issues, but it's impossible to point to the team's starting pitching inconsistency without including the schedule caveat. 

Baseball players — and starting pitchers, in specific — are creatures of habit and yet everybody is trying to navigate this new terrain.

Kyle Hendricks is still throwing a bunch on the side during all these rain/snow-outs, but most relievers are saving their bullets. Position players are still working out and getting their time in the cages, but that doesn't help everything.

The team that set records for their defensive prowess in 2016 has been inconsistent in the field this year, though their manager has an idea why.

"When you don't play consistently, the feel, the nuance, that escapes you," Joe Maddon said. 

The same issues that plagued the Cubs during their World Series "hangover" last year still seem to be around — not coming up with the timely hit, poor situational hitting overall, too many walks from the pitching staff.

But there are also reasons for optimism.

Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are showing development offensively and the lineup has missed its anchor (Anthony Rizzo) for almost half the season (seven games). Carl Edwards Jr. is limiting his walks and the Cubs bullpen has been the team's saving grace for the first three weeks.

The starting rotation is still iffy, but with resumes like Lester's, Kyle Hendricks', Jose Quintana's and Yu Darvish's, that figures to even out over a larger sample size.

The Cubs haven't fallen too far back in the standings (3 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates) and more importantly than anything, they've been able to stay healthy, apart from minor back issues for Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

The weather still doesn't look great in Colorado, Cleveland or back in Chicago next week, but eventually things will warm up and the sun will come out on a regular basis.

And eventually enough games will be played — and not postponed — where statements about who the 2018 Cubs are can be identified conclusively.

It's just not that time...yet.

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

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USA TODAY

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

MILWAUKEE - The Cubs are finally coming home.

After the longest road trip to begin a season since 1899, the Cubs will get to sleep in their own beds this week. Beds they haven't been in since before they left for spring training in mid-February.

Think about that: This road trip was not only nine games long, but it spanned 11 days (plus an extra three days before the season began in Florida) and the Cubs haven't been home in two months. While it would've been awful to play in Chicago in sub-freezing temperatures over the past week, this is the longest road trip to start a season in 119 years. 

They're also returning to Wrigley Field winners, boasting a 5-4 record.

For all the panic and comparisons to last season's slow start, the Cubs are sitting in a fantastic spot entering a long homestand.

They just won three of four from a very good Brewers squad, where they took advantage of all the Milwaukee mistakes, received quality starts in all three victories and saw their bullpen shut down an offense that very well may border on "elite," even without Christian Yelich.

The Cubs also did all this without Anthony Rizzo for the final three games of the series, as the All-Star first baseman is dealing with a back injury and may not be ready for Monday's opener at "The Friendly Confines" given the chilly forecast doesn't mesh well with a balky back.

"We just played quality baseball the last four games," Ben Zobrist said. "It's a good team, so good to get off to a good start against them this year and hopefully we can continue that this coming week."

Joe Maddon called it before the series started, giving his usual spiel about how he loves playing good teams, especially early on.

After going 2-3 against the Marlins and Reds - two teams expected to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick next summer - the Cubs came out and stomped their new division rivals, giving the fans who battled the "Wisconsin residents only" presale plenty to cheer about all weekend.

The Brewers scored just 7 runs in the four games, plating tallies in only four innings of the 36 played. 

Milwaukee also made 7 errors in the series, allowing the Cubs to take advantage.

"We did," Maddon said. "We've been playing aggressively. We've been playing smart for the most part."

The Cubs still didn't look quite like themselves, struggling to play situational baseball from an offensive perspective (particularly with runners on third base and less than two outs).

But they also will take a series win against an up-and-coming divison rival who figures to be in playoff contention for the next several years. 

"We know they're deep, they're a resilient bunch," Kyle Hendricks said. "What they did last year kinda brought them together. We have to be on it, game-in, game-out, regardless of who we lose or who they lose."

There's also a budding rivalry between the two teams in terms of off-field drama and wars of words. Take the Willson Contreras issue in the eighth inning Sunday.

Or the social media spat between the two teams over the last few months, culminating in an absolutely epic takedown by @Cubs Thursday:

Either way, this was exactly what the Cubs needed to light a fire.

"Always going to be a tough battle," said Kris Bryant, who is off to a blistering start. "They seem like a fun group over there, having a lot of fun.

"Sure, it can get a little annoying, but we do the same thing. It's a nice little rivalry and they're gonna be a tough one this year."

Eddie Butler, Cubs on the short end of a wacky one in Miami

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Eddie Butler, Cubs on the short end of a wacky one in Miami

MIAMI — The Cubs looked to be cruising to a 2-0 record and another nice day under the sun in South Florida.

They took some good swings in the first few innings, including a solo homer from Kris Bryant in the third. Kyle Hendricks looked a little rusty — as three walks indicated — but was otherwise his standard self, limiting hard contact and keeping hitters off-balance.

Proof:

https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/979897353057562629

But the easy night turned into a nightmare as the Cubs' bats suddenly went MIA and they couldn't add on. Starlin Castro's RBI single in the third inning was enough to keep the Marlins even for more than three hours.

In the bottom of the 17th, the Marlins finally — mercifully — ended the game on Miguel Rojas' walk-off single to score Brian Anderson, saddling poor Eddie Butler with the loss.

Here's all the wackiness from throughout the evening:

—This will forever be known as the Eddie Butler Game.

When the Cubs needed a hero, he stepped up:

When this week started, Butler didn't even know if he'd make the Cubs' Opening Day roster. Instead, he was thrust into action in just the second game of the season, tossed seven innings of baseball, saved the bullpen, gave his team a chance to win over and over again and even drew a walk in his second plate appearance.

And for all that, he was rewarded with a loss, showing how broken baseball's system of handing out wins and losses is.

But Butler certainly made an impact on his teammates and the Cubs fan base.

"That was such a huge effort, especially this early in the year, when starters aren't going that deep," said Hendricks. "What he did coming out of that bullpen tonight, it was awesome."

Butler said he knew he was in it for the long haul from the first second he took the ball.

"This is exactly what I've been wanting to do," he said. "I'm here to help this team win. Today was going seven innings out of the 'pen. It helped save our bullpen and there are some guys that are going to be fresh tomorrow, so we're not in a similar situation with that."

—518 pitches were thrown, with both teams tossing exactly 259 pitches.

—The teams combined to use 13 pitchers.

Some guy named Jarlin Garcia threw five perfect innings of relief for the Marlins before allowing the Cubs to load the bases in his sixth inning of work. He escaped without allowing a run.

Odrisamer Despaigne — who was slated to start Sunday — pitched an inning and got the win for the Marlins.

—When Butler entered the game with two outs in the 10th, Maddon emptied his bench with a series of dizzying moves:

*Victor Caratini came in to catch.

*That moved Willson Contreras to left field...

*Which moved Ben Zobrist to second base...

*Which moved Javy Baez to shortstop...

*Which moved Addison Russell to the bench...with Butler hitting in Russell's spot, who made the last out in the top of the 10th.

—Contreras and Rizzo had some fun with each other, after the Cubs catcher rifled a ball 140 mph (note: not an actual radar reading) at Rizzo on a cut-and-dry play:

Come for the Rizzo-Contreras fun, but stay for Mike Montgomery's bewildered look as he tries to figure out what the hell is going on.

—The teams combined for 34 strikeouts and 16 walks. 

The Cubs struck out 20 times themselves, much to Maddon's chagrin.

"Just a really well-pitched game on both sides, but obviously we gotta do better than 19 or 20 punch-outs."

—This was the longest game (by innings) ever in the history of Marlins Park.

—The game took five hours and 18 minutes to complete.

—There were 33 men left on base in the contest, including 18 from the Marlins and 15 from the Cubs.

—Butler set a new career high in innings pitched and now actually leads the Cubs staff in outs recorded to start 2018.

—The new extra inning rule put in place for minor-league baseball includes throwing a runner on second base to start each new inning of free baseball.

Maddon is a self-proclaimed traditionalist who doesn't want to see the game tinkered with in that way, but even he admitted early Saturday morning that the rule would be awfully nice right now for either manager with a completely drained bullpen.

As for Saturday's game, Maddon wasn't sure which pitchers would be available to throw from the Cubs bullpen, but they were hoping for at least 100 solid pitches from Yu Darvish in his team debut.

Catch all the action Saturday on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m.