As the Cactus League shuttered its doors and Cubs players scattered across the country – some headed home, others stayed in Arizona —Tommy Hottovy stepped into uncharted territory.
Hottovy has been the Cubs pitching coach since December of 2018, so he’s guided his pitchers through offseasons before. But going from ramping up in Spring Training to not knowing when Major League Baseball would return? No one had a play book for that.
“Our philosophy was be over-ready and not try to play catchup,” starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “So, luckily we were able to do that.”
Fast forward to Sunday, Day 3 of Cubs Summer Camp. By the end of the holiday weekend, four of the Cubs’ five presumptive starters had thrown at least two innings in an intrasquad scrimmage and four relievers had also gotten time on the mound.
“It’s just a testament to the work those guys put in over the process,” Hottovy said.
During the shutdown, Hottovy held regular meetings with the pitchers via video conference. They bounced ideas off each other and discussed their overall approach.
“We had so many resources between Tommy, Rossy (manager David Ross), the whole coaching staff staying in touch with us the whole time,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “And then other players. So, we really did it as a group.”
Out of those conversations, Hottovy learned that many of the pitchers wanted arm strength to be a focus during the break.
“Not just pitch-count wise,” Hottovy said, “but to feel that their arm was in the right throwing shape.”
So, he incorporated that into the pitchers’ throwing programs.
Each pitchers’ program was catered to the resources and facilities he had access to, as well as his own goals. But before ramping up for Summer Camp, most of the starting pitchers were throwing one bullpen session early in the week and a simulated game later in the week. As the season got closer, they added a second bullpen.
“The reason I liked getting to those two bullpens,” Hottovy said, “was because now you kind of start simulating what it’s like to be on a five-game rotation.”
By the time they entered camp, many of the starting pitchers were already throwing multiple-inning simulation games. By Day 2 of camp, the Cubs were ready for a short intrasquad game. Hendricks threw three innings, and Yu Darvish threw two.
“Both of them had actually thrown more pitches in a simulated outing prior to coming here,” Hottovy said, “but we wanted to back that off a little bit, obviously knowing that the intensity was going to go up. They’re back on the field with players behind them facing more of our lineup, more of our hitters.”
On Sunday, the Cubs stretched an intrasquad out to five-innings. Chatwood and Alec Mills started, and Dan Winkler, Duane Underwood, Rex Brothers and James Norwood all pitched in relief.
“Everything’s based off pitching,” Ross said and then laughed. “We give the pitchers a hard time all the time; the pitchers kind of dictate how long the day’s going to go because these guys have got to get their pitch counts up.”
With less than three weeks until the season opener, Hottovy’s job still doesn’t return to normal. Instead of setting a schedule based on the order of the pitching rotation, he’s “front-loading” the starters. He also is preparing some relivers to throw extended innings.
“Right now, in my mind we have seven opening day starters,” he said, “…You can’t space them out too much in my opinion just because you can’t take that chance.”
Long after the Cubs finished their three-inning, Fourth-of-July vacation from the pandemic Saturday, manager David Ross returned by himself to the field, where he spent a few minutes of mostly quiet time, a few grounds-crew members working on the mound and batter’s boxes in the background.
“Just taking a minute, trying to enjoy what I get to do, what this whole process is,” said Ross, who walked around and gazed at the Wrigley Field green expanse and out at the scoreboard with the U.S. flag against the blue sky, then snapped a picture.
“Everybody was gone, just finished a workout and I had a minute,” he said, “and it just looked cool, on the Fourth of July. Just a little moment for me.”
The rare moment of calm amid the COVID-19 storm that rages with renewed force across much of the country and that roars against everything baseball is trying to build this summer was gone almost as soon as it began — Ross pulling the mask back across his face as he headed back indoors toward his office and eventually home.
By the time the Cubs got together again Sunday, it was time for another round of coronavirus testing and another wait to see if they’ll remain one of only two teams without a known case among the players.
In between, they played five more innings of baseball and wondered how long 30 teams in 28 cities can keep their training camps functional and a 60-game season in play.
“We had meetings, and everybody knows what’s at risk,” said fourth starter Tyler Chatwood, who pitched three innings Sunday. "My wife is pregnant, and I have a two-year-old at home. So, I think the toughest part for me is not seeing them, but this is what I want to do.
“We all want to stay as safe as possible and we all want to get the season in.”
If Chatwood, Ross and the rest of the Cubs weren’t sure how persistent the micro-commitments and significant the undertaking of this 1,700-player effort, they have been bombarded with reminders each day — from Sunday’s testing to the news that high-profile pitchers Felix Hernandez and David Price and Cleveland bench coach Brad Mills have opted out of the 2020 season over the risk, to Giants star Buster Posey and Phillies $118 million pitcher Zach Wheeler telling media they might yet make the same decision.
Ross reiterated the day-to-day nature of evaluating the landscape and risk and navigating the protocols and emotions.
“Everybody definitely has their radar up and wants to know we’re doing everything possible,” he said. “Our guys are extremely bought-in. But everybody has a little bit of a pause as you come to the park and what each day’s going to be like.”
Sunday was only Day 3 of a 21-day training camp before a season would open on July 24.
It was only Day 2 for some other teams. And some teams, such as the Oakland A’s, postponed Sunday’s scheduled full-squad workout because their intake testing hasn’t been completed. Sean Doolittle of the Nationals told media the team in the nation’s capital is short on some basic PPE supplies, such as masks, and he remains concerned about the league’s ability to pull this off safely.
And a few miles to the south, the White Sox on Sunday said two of their players have tested positive.
“This not a small undertaking, trying to get a season up and running and then manage it for a 60-game season,” said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who suffered through a frightening, painful month-long bout with COVID-19. “I think we’re giving it the best chance to be successful.”
In addition to Hottovy, Royals manager Mike Matheny also revealed over the weekend, he battled the virus about a month ago.
As news continues to surface about positive tests, and stars as big as Mike Trout of the Angels openly talk about whether they might opt out, the Cubs mask up in their clubhouse, continue to wash and distance and ask their own questions.
“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said. “We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”
Not that anyone in baseball is judging anyone who chooses to opt out. In fact, far from it, Ross said.
“These are serious issues that to a man everybody has to look at their situation individually and make a tough choice,” he said. “This is an extremely difficult environment for these players to be in. They’re having to alter their routines, continue to have other things on their mind, other than performing baseball, and still trying to make it fun.”
Hottovy said he had to make his own tough choice to return after talking about the concerns with family. Ross said some Cubs have family members at home with high-risk conditions for severe reactions if infected by the virus.
So far, the Brewers and Cubs are the only teams that have not reported any positive tests among its players.
“It doesn’t mean somebody’s not going to test positive through no fault of their own,” Ross said “We’re at the mercy of this virus.
“But I’m super proud of our guys, how serious they’re taking it and how they’ve come in so far.”
And so far, they’ve stayed together. Whatever doubts might persist. Whatever might be around baseball’s next corner.
Said Hottovy: “How it’s managed, how we handle it on a day-to-day basis and manage it not only as an organization but across baseball is going to determine how this thing goes in the long run.”