Jon Lester

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

cubs_searching_for_rhythm_of_season_slide.jpg
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.

The wild inning that saved Cubs fans a whole lot of panicking, as told in Tweets

jon_lester_cubs_wacky_inning_in_milwaukee_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

The wild inning that saved Cubs fans a whole lot of panicking, as told in Tweets

MILWAUKEE — If Cubs fans were panicking after their team fell one game under .500 in the first two weeks of the season, imagine the outcry if they dropped TWO games under.

They were on the verge of doing so as Saturday afternoon turned into evening at Miller Park.

Despite a strong start by Yu Darvish and another inspired effort from the bullpen, Cubs hitters couldn't get runners home from third base with less than two outs, a serious issue that's plagued them in the first 8 games of 2018.

But then the 9th inning happened, an inning that may go down as the wildest, wackiest, craziest, zaniest inning in the Cubs' 2018 season.

The Cubs entered the frame down 2-1 after Lorenzo Cain's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth inning. With Brewers closer Corey Knebel out injured and stud reliever Josh Hader having thrown a bunch in Friday's contest, Milwaukee was left with no choice but throwing out Jacob Barnes as a closer.

Here's how it went down, step-by-step on Twitter:

(Bonus points for anybody who got that joke^^)

And the end result:

If you're keeping score at home, that's

—Tommy La Stella popped out to shortstop.
—Victor Caratini reached on an infield single and advanced to second on a throwing error by Orlando Arcia.
—Addison Russell pinch-ran for Caratini.
—Jason Heyward walked.
—Javy Baez grounded to third baseman Travis Shaw, who booted the ball to load the bases.
—Ben Zobrist reached on an infield single, scoring Russell.
—Ian Happ singled, driving in Heyward and Baez.
—Kris Bryant was intentionally walked.
—Jon Lester pinch-hit for Pedro Strop.
—Lester laid down a squeeze bunt, scoring Zobrist and being thrown out at 1B.
—Willson Contreras walked.
—La Stella fouled out to Barnes.

And Ian Happ goes home the hero after striking out three more times (to give him 17 already on the young season) earlier in the contest.

"Whatever's he's gonna have tonight for dinner tastes better," Maddon said of Happ. "Sleep's gonna be much more tranquil. If he had a dog with him on the road, he's gonna love his puppy even more. That's what happens after a hit like that."

Joe Maddon heaps praise on Javy Baez's 'El Mago' routine on basepaths, compares him to Willie Mays

Joe Maddon heaps praise on Javy Baez's 'El Mago' routine on basepaths, compares him to Willie Mays

MILWAUKEE — Javy Baez recorded the first-ever three-walk game of his career Thursday night and reached base a career-high five times, but that wasn't what anybody wanted to talk about after the Cubs' 8-0 win.

It was what Javy did ON the bases that mattered, not how he got there.

After 19 straight scoreless innings, the Cubs offense was in need of a boost. Baez delivered first with his bat, then with his legs.

After a two-run single plated Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell, Baez advanced to third when Milwaukee second baseman Hernan Perez booted Jon Lester's routine ground ball.

But when Baez saw Lorenzo Cain bobble the ball in center field backing up the play, "El Mago" reacted immediately and sprinted toward home. It took a miraculous slide, but he got his hand in there before Jett Bandy's tag and just like that, Lester had a three-run lead to work with.

"We've seen that before, man," Joe Maddon said. "He's got eyes in the back of his head. He's gonna make a great parent. He's just got that stuff. He just knows what's going on. When he does that, it doesn't surprise. At all."

Lester was equally impressed.

"Javy never ceases to amaze people with what he's able to do on the basepaths, let alone with his defense and everything else," the veteran pitcher said. "He's always going to play the game aggressively and it always seems to work out for us.

"I think the slide was even more impressive than him reading that ball and getting home. That's always a nice thing to have on your side."

It was only the top of the second inning, but it seemed to be a knockout blow for the Brewers, who never scored and allowed the Cubs an extra five insurance runs later in the game.

"When you do stuff like that, when you make mistakes on defense and the other team takes advantage, it normally does hit you in the solarplex a bit," Maddon said. "Javy has had that experience on the bases before. He's always heads up. Always.

"If you watch him, he will look behind to see what's going on. Going back in the day, you saw Willie Mays doing that a lot. He's got extraordinary instincts on the bases."

After the game, Baez couldn't help but smirk at all the questions from reports about his baserunning.

He understands his role hitting eighth in the lineup with the pitcher's spot behind him, so he doesn't want to be too aggressive and run into outs on the basepaths, but the Cubs also aren't trying to coach the "El Mago" out of Baez.

"They let me run the bases how I want to and I obviously have fun out there," Baez said. "If you pay attention to where you need to be and wherever the sign is coming from, you really know everything.

"In that moment, I was just reacting to that play and hustling down the line."