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Joe Maddon speaks for Cubs fans when it comes to Daniel Murphy

Joe Maddon speaks for Cubs fans when it comes to Daniel Murphy

Daniel Murphy's name will always elicit groans from Cubs fans.

It doesn't matter that the Cubs won it all in 2016. Murphy's dominance over the North Siders in the 2015 National League Championship Series will serve as a black mark in the franchise's history. 

Forget the fact that the Cubs hit just .164 with a .522 OPS against the New York Mets in the four games.

It was Murphy's performance — four homers, nine hits, 1.850 OPS — that sticks in the crawl of the fanbase, to the point where he still gets booed when he visits Wrigley Field.

Murphy will once again meet the Cubs in October, hitting in the middle of a relentless Washington Nationals lineup.

Joe Maddon spoke for every Cubs fan when he was asked about Murphy Wednesday.

"I still wish he was a Met," Maddon chuckled. "There's no question, I do. He was so good a couple years ago. He's still very good. He's outstanding. He has really reinvented himself during the middle of his career. He's one of the more dangerous hitters playing baseball right now."

Murphy — who signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Washington after the Mets lost to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series — didn't homer last fall, but he did hit .438 and drive in six runs in the Nationals' five-game NLDS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Jon Lester will be tasked with slowing down Murphy and the Nationals lineup Saturday in Game 2 and the Cubs veteran southpaw said he believes the team has done better against Murphy lately.

While he's technically right, it's only because Murphy's 2015 NLCS numbers were so out-of-this-world.

In 2017, Murphy hit .360 with a 1.229 OPS in seven games against Cubs pitching, hitting three homers, driving in four runs and scoring nine. 

Lester and Co. had better luck in 2016, when Murphy hit *only* .286 with a .726 OPS and did not homer in seven games against the Cubs.

"What makes him even more dangerous now is the guys around him," Lester said. "You think, 'Hey, I don't wanna pitch to [Bryce] Harper and this guy' and then all of a sudden, you got first and second or second and third with him up.

"And he's such a good contact hitter that it makes it hard to strike him out and it makes it harder to get those weak ground balls. 

"...That'll be fun to face that lineup. It's a good lineup. He flat-out beat us in '15. Hopefully that's not the case this go-around."

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

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USA TODAY

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

Kyle Schwarber is ready to add to his legend.

The 24-year-old slugger just finished his first full MLB season, but will live forever in Cubs lore after helping end the 108-year championship drought with a made-for-Hollywood return to the lineup in the World Series.

Schwarber's 2017 has been a roller coaster that included a three-week stint in the minor leagues and inconsistent playing time down the stretch.

But he has a career .364 average and 1.178 OPS in 14 playoff games and the Cubs' new "Mr. October" is heating up at just the right time. He hit .288 with a .954 OPS in 59 September at-bats, crushing six homers and helping raise his season average from .168 on July 6 to .211

It's like he flipped a switch as October neared.

"This is my favorite time of year," he said. "This is when things start coming to the nitty-gritty. This brings out the best in everyone, I think. You saw when we were playing Milwaukee and the way St. Louis was playing, those were some really hard-fought games.

"It was like a playoff atmosphere. Going into Washington, it's gonna be some hard-fought games. ... You're gonna be in for a grinder series, I'm sure, and it'll be fun."

In a trying year that saw Schwarber finish with only 422 at-bats, he still reached the 30-homer plateau with a moonshot Saturday afternoon in the season's penultimate game. He was also caught on the videoboard camera in the Cubs dugout dancing along to the "YMCA."

"It's pretty crazy, isn't it?" Joe Maddon said of Schwarber's 30th homer. "Good for him. That shows you the kinda talent that he has. Came back and really reconstructed himself.

"Right now, that home run [Saturday], I was really watching it closely. He got started really early, which is good. You can never be too early, but you can be too late as a hitter. He was definitely on time and that's why the ball went that far."

We don't know yet how often Maddon will write Schwarber's name on the lineup card at the start of the Cubs' playoff games, a stark contrast from last year when the left-handed slugger changed the complexion of the entire lineup and drove the news cycle for 10 days right around Halloween.

Schwarber isn't concerned about his role, focusing instead on the team

"I'm gonna prepare like I'm in the lineup until I'm told that I'm not," Schwarber said. "And then when I'm not, I'm gonna prepare like the way I would be coming off the bench.

"There's gonna be no different kind of preparation for me. This time of the year is where you can't get surprised by anything."

For the third straight fall, Schwarber will be in uncharted waters in the beginning of October.

In 2015, Schwarber immediately put the Cubs on the board in that high-octane wild-card game in Pittsburgh before crushing the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS and coming under fire for a couple defensive miscues in the NLCS against the New York Mets.

Last year, Schwarber was still powering through a rehab process up until the last week of October when he made an incredible return to the lineup in the World Series after missing more than six months.

This fall, he has four days between games and will focus on simulated action and batting practice instead of rehab and winner-take-all one-game playoffs.

He's also taking some time for visualization, imagining himself executing in different situations and trying to provide some of that 30-homer pop whenever he's called upon in October.

"It's been an up-and-down year," Schwarber said. "It is what it is. I'm happy about [the 30-homer plateau], but I'm not really too focused on it at all. It's a cool accomplishment, but I'm more focused on the bigger picture here, which is the postseason coming up."

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.