After getting swept by Cardinals, Cubs know they can't take anything for granted

After getting swept by Cardinals, Cubs know they can't take anything for granted

"There's still a lot of baseball left."

That's the standard line from Major League Baseball managers and players whenever media members get a little too caught up in the ups and downs of a 162-game season.

The Cubs woke up Monday — in advance of a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals — 12.5 games up in the NL Central, the largest division lead in franchise history. 

The Cubs (47-23) will go to sleep Wednesday night with only a 9.5 game lead in the NL Central after being swept out of Wrigley by those same Cardinals (38-33).

It was a simple reminder that this Cardinals team won 100 games last year and has been a perennial World Series contender over the last decade-plus. 

It was also a reminder that more than half the season remains and a large lead can evaporate in a hurry.

Yet the Cubs (47-23) won't hit the panic button. They've known all along they can't take their hot start for granted.

"Honestly, man, I'm fine," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 7-2 loss Wednesday. "The first two games, we played really well and lost. Those are actually tougher to deal with. Today's game was just, they just clubbed us. Give them credit.

"...They played well and they beat us. That's it. That's all I got. You're gonna lose some games."

Jake Arrieta got the call to start Wednesday's game, but the reigning NL Cy Young winner couldn't put a stop to his team's mini losing streak.

However, he insists the mood in the clubhouse hasn't changed after the Cubs were swept for the first time in almost a year.

"Not really," Arrieta said. "We're in a good spot. We're gonna take our lumps. In May, I think, we lost several in a row. The mindset stayed the same. I don't see this being any different. 

"We'll adjust. We had to deal with some adversity. Some guys going down. But it's about how we pick each other up and bridge the gap until those guys get healthy and until we're at full strength."

The Cubs wound up 3-3 on the short homestand thanks to a sweep of the spiraling Pirates over the weekend.

But they experienced firsthand how the game of baseball giveth and taketh away.

"It's always wonderful if you're going to somebody else's ballpark and win like that. No doubt," Maddon said. "But there's a long time left. We're not taking anything for granted on our side, either. We gotta play. 

"It ended up being a .500 homestand. Our sights are set higher than that. But you can't be upst with that, either. The Pirates left feeling the same way that we feel right now. It's just how this thing rolls back and forth. 

"We gotta move on and we have a long road trip. We'll be ready to play. We got Jonny [Lester] tomorrow. Happy about that. I don't get too involved or emotionally upset about these kinds of moments. It's gonna happen. It happened. Move on."

Still, the Cubs are sitting at 9.5 games up in the division before July 4 has even come along, tied for the largest division lead in the league.

"When you're 10 games ahead, you look at it that way," Miguel Montero said. "Nothing you can do about it. It's over. You just gotta move on. Good thing we have a pretty good lead. We just can't take it for granted. 

"We just want to keep it there. Obviously they came here, they played us pretty good, so other than that, you can't live with the past. You gotta move on. We already lost. Nothing we can do about it. We just gotta go to Miami and play better."

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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