Jared Wyllys

Cubs pitching and offense click in win over Brewers

Cubs pitching and offense click in win over Brewers

Since the first homestand in April, the Cubs have shown that they are much more comfortable at Wrigley than they are on the road. On Friday, the trend continued.

Despite coming off of an 8-0 thumping from the Cardinals Thursday night and a 3-6 road trip through San Francisco, Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Cubs beat the Brewers in a relatively drama-free 6-2 win to start the weekend series.

Friday's win came from a familiar recipe. Good pitching plus quality at-bats up and down the lineup equals a happy home field crowd.

Central to that was the mound work of Jose Quintana, who pitched six two-run innings. He struck out five and walked none while giving up seven hits, and he was backed up by an offense that clicked from the very first at-bat. Jason Heyward led off with a home run, Javy Baez went 3-5 with two doubles and a home run and newcomer Nick Castellanos at least put the ball in play each time he went to the plate.

"This guy is really focused," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Castellanos. "Everything he does, man, he's laser-focused."

Castellanos was an at-the-buzzer acquisition Wednesday, but he will likely play an important role down the stretch as the Cubs try to stave off the other two top teams in their division. So his 1-5 with a bloop single might not look like much in the box score, but it is a necessary jolt to the rest of the offense because he put the ball in play all five times.

"He's had some really good at-bats," Maddon said, adding that he thought when Castellanos reached on an error by Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura in the fourth inning that it should have been a hit as well.

On Saturday, the Cubs face Gio Gonzalez, and Maddon said that he looks forward to seeing Castellanos in action against a southpaw for the first time. One of the reasons the Cubs traded for Castellanos was because of how he has hit lefties this year: He's hitting .347 with a 1.026 OPS in 82 plate appearances.

And Castellanos can lengthen a lineup that Maddon said before Friday's game needs to have more "sprayability" and to rely less on home runs to score, especially in road games. Even in the limited sample of two games, he's caught the attention of his new teammates.

"He wants to win, and that stands out to me most. He puts up great at-bats, he's aggressive in the strike zone. Just being on base, he's trying to win, he's looking to do the next thing," Jason Heyward said.

Castellanos ran into an out at third base after reaching on the error in the fourth when he was caught trying to steal after he'd advanced to second on a wild pitch. Even with the out, the energy and extra effort was noted in the home dugout.

"It's just a person that comes in and understands you don't have a chance to win every season," Heyward said. "We have a chance to win a ring, and he wants to make the most of that, so it's appreciated."

The Cubs got hits from every batter in the starting lineup, including Quintana, and on the mound, Q's efforts were followed up by clean innings from Rowan Wick, Brandon Kintzler and Kyle Ryan.

Maddon said afterward that he had hoped for Quintana to be able to pitch the seventh inning, as he was still under 100 pitches at that time. Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas both got hard-hit base hits to lead off the inning, so Wick had to come in and shut down the scoring threat.

"[He] pretty much kept that whole thing in order," Maddon said of Wick. "That was an outstanding performance on his part."

Winning more games at home like this series opener against the Brewers will help to ease the strain of the Cubs' ugly road record, but they might benefit from taking a few away from Wrigley by following Friday's recipe.

 

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No clear answers for Cubs' road woes: 'We have to draw it out of ourselves'

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USA TODAY

No clear answers for Cubs' road woes: 'We have to draw it out of ourselves'

The Cubs' Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act has made the 2019 season like watching two different teams. Since the beginning of the year, they have played like the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and the Marlins away from the Friendly Confines.

"It’s just frustrating to all of us," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Friday's game against the Brewers. "To be two different teams completely is very awkward."

The Cubs have gone 36-18 at home but just 21-33 away from Chicago. As a whole, they're still six games above .500, but there's no question that even a slightly better road record would be making a significant difference to where the team is in the division. Going into this weekend's series against Milwaukee, the Cubs are a game behind the Cardinals and a game ahead of the Brewers. 

There are six games at home coming up, but as the Cubs hit the road again on August 8 for a 10-game trip through Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, they know that something about how they're playing their away games has to change. 

They just don't seem to be certain of what that should be.

"The guys are very capable, we have to extract it from them somehow," Maddon said. "I don’t have any solid answers, and I hate to tell you that, but the process has been the same, the work’s the same, their attitude has been good.

"We have to draw it out of ourselves. Just go out there and continue to work the process, go out there and play it hard, enjoy the moment."

But Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein suggested Friday that it will take more than that. 

"I just think we're trying the same thing over and over again, but it's not working," Epstein said. "We can try to look to shake some things up, either with our preparation or our patterns or whether it's time for more work, less work, I don't know."

Maddon said that the plan is for the Cubs to take their traditional "American Legion Week" -- when they simply show up and play and avoid the typical pregame work like batting practice -- during the next homestand, but beyond that, there were no clear ideas from the manager about what he, the coaches, or the team can do differently beyond just continuing to do what they've done how they've done it so far.

"I would love for us to chill and just go play a little bit," Maddon said. "I’ve never done anything well uptight in my life, and I don’t think a baseball player can either, especially if they play every day."

There's some incongruity coming from Maddon and Epstein about how the team needs to handle the last two months of the season, but there's no secret at least about what's gone wrong on the road. The offense, despite being on paper one of the more talented in baseball, doesn't score. The pitching staff, despite a solid rotation and bullpen, has an ERA that's a full run higher than when they pitch at Wrigley.

In a division race that's as tight as the NL Central has been, that's a huge problem, especially when the Cubs aren't beating the Brewers and Cardinals in their home parks.

"We've lost every single road series against a division opponent this year. Seven series, and seven series losses. As talented as we are, if we don't fix that, we're not going anywhere," Epstein said. "That's a huge priority for us, and I think we all feel like we've underperformed on the road and that needs to change. That's the reality of it, there's no sugarcoating at this point in the year. You can't just look past it, we have to try some different things in order to improve our performance on the road."

But what those different things might be is still unclear. Kris Bryant said that the team hasn't resorted to holding any sort of player meetings to try and self-assess the team's road struggles. Doing that, he said, only leads to worse play. Instead, he encouraged what has been Maddon's approach to managing since he came to Chicago. Keep it light, relax, and play ball.

"If anything it's more we need to be more lighthearted and goof around more rather than making everything life or death," Bryant said, "because I think when you put it in that perspective, you get the absolute worst product out of each and every one of us."

Whatever the fix ends up being, whether it's staying consistent in their process or trying something new and different, the Cubs need that fix to come. They have a lot of road games left this season, including two very important series in September in Milwaukee and St. Louis. If they continue to play like characters out of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, the season might end with a whimper.

'We're not going to lay down': White Sox roll to 5-1 win with Ivan Nova's pitching, Yoan Moncada's offense

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USA TODAY

'We're not going to lay down': White Sox roll to 5-1 win with Ivan Nova's pitching, Yoan Moncada's offense

The White Sox have had a sluggish start to the second half, coming into Saturday's game against the Twins with a 3-12 record after the All-Star break. But thanks to the pitching of Ivan Nova and the bullpen and the bat of Yoan Moncada, they avoided a fifth straight loss this week and beat the Twins, 5-1.

Much of Saturday's win hinged on how the team responded to an error on a tough flyball in the top of the third inning. The White Sox had scored in the bottom of the second on singles from Jose Rondon and Yolmer Sanchez and then a fielder's choice from the bat of Adam Engel, but a misplay in the next frame tied the game and looked at the time like a potential momentum shift in favor of the Twins.

Byron Buxton lead off the third for the Twins with a double, and then he scored when Moncada missed a Jorge Polanco fly ball just behind third base. With the game tied, White Sox manager Rick Renteria gathered his team in the dugout for a quick in-game meeting.

"Just talking to the guys. Making sure we were clear on how we're doing things," Renteria said after the game. "I think they know we're better than that. That's all it was. Just reminding them that we're better than that."

Moncada said that Renteria told them to just keep playing well.

"Do your job and enjoy the game. Don’t get frustrated," Moncada said.

The play, which Renteria stressed after the game was not an easy one, called for Moncada to track a high pop up from a slight defensive shift while being mindful of Buxton coming toward third base and then redirecting as the ball tailed back toward the outfield. An error in the box score, but a very tough play.

"That's not an easy play. Not at all," Renteria said. "And so I think that everybody has to understand that, and our guys understand that. That's not an easy play. I think that when we talk to them, they understand that we have a certain level of effort that we want to give and a focus, and that's what we were talking about at the end of the inning."

From there, the White Sox scored four more runs, two of which were driven in by Moncada, one on a 432-foot, solo home run in the bottom of the fifth and then a double that scored Leury Garcia in the bottom of the seventh. He ended up going 3-for-4 on the night, and his home run came from the right side of the plate, something that has been a developmental milestone for Moncada this season, and something that Renteria said has made him much more effective and much tougher for opposing teams to deal with.

On the mound, Nova didn't let the third inning miscue rattle him. He threw a quality start, allowing just three Twins baserunners in six innings. Nova has pitched well in July, narrowly missing quality starts in his first two outings of the month and then beating Minnesota Saturday after throwing a complete game against the Marlins on Monday.

Renteria pulled Nova from Saturday's start at just 88 pitches despite how well he was pitching because he was still somewhat fatigued from going long in his previous start. Nova was willing to keep going, Renteria said, but understood the call.

"You're coming off throwing nine innings with 112 pitches, a lot of times you don't get enough time to recover," Nova said. "I did what I had to do, it was a good day."

Nova might be an appealing trade target come Wednesday's deadline, but he said it's not something he's thinking about.

"My focus is here. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, but I cannot think about that," Nova said. "I want to stay here. The number one thing is I want to help the team to win games. If I get traded, OK, but it's nothing I'm anticipating nor asking for."

With the White Sox ten games below .500 and well out of reach for the division, it might make sense to deal Nova, but he has demonstrated his value to the team in his ability to eat innings and to mentor the younger starters, like he has with Reynaldo Lopez.

Beating the Twins dropped their lead in the division over Cleveland to just one game, and for Renteria, it also meant that his team is still playing the way he wants them to.

"I think these guys showed you they can chip away and do certain things to compete even against strong slugging clubs," Renteria said. "I think they showed everybody we're not going to lay down, we're going to continue to play."

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