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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.

Situational hitting is still Cubs Achilles' heel, but they may be moving in right direction

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Situational hitting is still Cubs Achilles' heel, but they may be moving in right direction

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a revolution.

The focus for hitters is on launch angle and exit velocity, sacrificing contact. The focus for pitchers is on strikeouts, sacrificing walks.

Which makes for a radically different game in terms of situational hitting from a decade or two ago. The two factions slam into each other when there's a runner on third base and less than two outs. 

Hitters used to emphasize contact in those situations — shortening their swing, choking up on the bat, anything to get the run in with a productive ball in play.

Now we're seeing a whole lot of strikeouts in such instances.

"That's all I've been watching," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's Cubs home opener. "I was sitting on the couch yesterday watching games and all I saw was teams cannot drive in a run from third base with less than two outs.

"It's not just something an individual team has to overcome."

Maddon attributes a lot of that to the increase in strikeout pitchers around the game, in large part thanks to a velocity spike.

Almost every relief pitcher can dial it up to the high-90s now and strikeouts are up at a record pace around the league — in any situation.

Pitchers are going for the strikeout more than ever. It's not about soft contact anymore (unless your name is Kyle Hendricks).

Maddon admitted he's specifically told Cubs relievers to go for the whiff several different times on the mound in the season's first 10 games. 

"I give the ball to the guy and I'll say, 'Listen, you've got a base open. Go for the strikeout,'" Maddon said. "Meaning, even if he gets down like 2-0 [in the count], don't just throw a cookie in there. Go for the strikeout."

The issue of getting a runner home from third with less than two outs has been a huge Achilles' heel for the Cubs thus far in 2018, continuing a trend from last season.

Through the first nine games of the season, the Cubs had 25 plate appearances in which there was a runner on third base and less than two outs. They got the runner home in just 5 of those situations (20 percent success rate). 

What's even more incredible is 3 of those 5 situations came in one inning — that wacky top of the ninth in Milwaukee Saturday evening when Ben Zobrist legged out an infield hit, Ian Happ lined a two-run single to left-center and Jon Lester laid down a perfect squeeze bunt.

So apart from that one inning, the Cubs are just 2-for-22 in succeeding on getting the runner home from third — a 9 percent success rate.

"We need to do it," Maddon said. "That's what we need to nail down. Most major-league managers are gonna say the same thing.

"Most of the time after a close loss, somebody's gonna talk about leaving runners on third. It's just an industry-wide issue. If we can nail that play down, we're gonna be really, really good."

This Cubs offense was supposed to be developing into the "elite" territory in baseball this season after scoring the second-most runs in the National League last season.

Yet they entered play Tuesday 25th in baseball in OPS (.568) and 27th in average (.176) with runners in scoring position. 

They went 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position in Tuesday's 8-5 loss to the Pirates. Both hits were soft, bouncing ground balls in the perfect spot through the shift from Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward, leading to three runs.

It's not like Schwarber and Heyward crushed their hits, but Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff could point to any contact in such situations as a moment to learn from. 

"That's what you're trying to do," Maddon said. "... It's not always gonna be perfect, but definitely our application is good. We're gonna get better at it."

Schwarber — who began the season 0-for-9 with 4 Ks with runners in scoring position — also saw his first-inning two-strike hit and Heyward's eighth-inning single as positive moments the Cubs could draw on down the line.

"Definitely a really good sign for us," Schwarber said. "Obviously it wasn't the outcome we wanted, but if we keep doing that as an offense, good things are gonna happen for us.

"You're not going up there trying to strike out. We're all up there always trying to put the ball in play. Sometimes that can work against you, if you try to put the ball in play too much and tell yourself you're not gonna strike out.

"You just gotta go with that and trust your plan and trust yourself and your abilities. I feel like we all did a pretty good job today with the offense."

The next five games will be a true test for the Cubs' situational offense with Anthony Rizzo — probably the team's best two-strike hitter — now on the disabled list

In a game that swings heavily from one side to the other based on luck, sometimes good things can happen just by putting the ball in play, as Tuesday proved (even if it didn't lead to a Cubs victory). 

"We just gotta learn to move the baseball," Maddon said. "For me, that's to concede. To make concessions. I'm talking about mental concessions. How you don't try to be as big, do so much.

"You're attempting to use the middle and opposite field. These are the kind of thoughts, to me, that get you away from that punch-out in that moment and that's what we're trying to nurture."

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

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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."