Cubs

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Joe Maddon is talking up moral victories in late May – the defending champs keep playing hard – while getting questions about how the 2017 team still needs to create its own identity. 

This is the symbiotic relationship between the Cubs manager and the Chicago media. There is a fine line between giving context and making excuses, overreacting to a small sample size and ignoring the breakdowns in every phase of the game so far.

The Cubs shouldn’t be covered like an NFL team, where every game leads to sweeping conclusions. But at some point this year, the old Bill Parcells line will come true: “You are what your record says you are.”

In many ways, the San Francisco Giants are the model for business/baseball synergy, but even they couldn’t make the playoffs the year after winning the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, each time finishing at least eight games out of first place and dealing with the kind of hangover the Cubs are experiencing now, making this four-game series at Wrigley Field a reality check.

“Our guys have a great mindset,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re a little frustrated, as anyone would be with how we’re playing, but they have a lot of heart and they really care. I think they know how good they can be and they want to attain that level. There’s no lack of urgency. There’s no complacency because we won last year. 

“There’s also confidence in what we can and will do when guys hit their stride. There’s no panic, but there’s also a lot of guys in there who care about playing up to our capabilities. That’s one of the reasons I have so much trust in this group and a lot of confidence that we’re going to get it straightened out.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen. You never quite know where the bottom is. You never quite know what catalytic event is going to turn things around.”

Maybe Tuesday night’s 4-1 win will be a springboard, the way the Cubs swept a four-game series against the Giants in August 2015 and kept rolling into the National League Championship Series.

Jon Lester pitched brilliantly in a complete-game, 10-strikeouts, zero-walks performance, carrying a rotation that began the day with a 4.45 ERA that ranked 17th in the majors. Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Johnny Cueto, showing signs of life for a high-profile offense that began the day with a .746 OPS that ranked 14th in the majors.

Everything’s also relative in an NL Central where the Cubs (23-21) have the most talent, the most money and the clearest direction at the trade deadline. There will be no buy-or-sell debates within Epstein’s front office or too much worrying about the future.  

“You look at our division right now and you can talk about anybody’s record,” Heyward said. “Whoever’s in first right now, they’re not doing much better than we are. Whoever’s in last, they’re not doing much worse than we are. That’s just kind of how the division’s going right now. 

“We understand that it’s going to be whoever steps up and finishes the season strong (will) come out on top. You kind of get the drift that the wild-card team’s not going to come from this division at this point. There’s a lot of baseball left, obviously, and you can’t pencil anybody in or cancel anybody out. 

“We just got to go out here and keep trying to put it together. Keep being in every ballgame, keep making adjustments and see what it brings.” 

Across these last two nights at Clark and Addison, the Cubs have also flashed the athleticism, skills and instincts that transformed them into a historic defensive unit last season, which makes the 37 errors and 28 unearned runs through 44 games so puzzling.

“Last year, our starting pitching was excellent,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our offense, it had its ups and downs, but largely it was very good and it will be very good this year. But the defense hasn’t been as solid. And last year, it was borderline spectacular. 

“Not only was it clean, but it was also that we made big plays at big times. It just felt like something that happened a lot. This year, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we haven’t really made those big defensive plays. I don’t have an explanation for that.

“You think of defense as sort of a constant. (But) clearly as a team it’s been like anything else – you go up and down. That was the backbone of our team last year and we need to get back to that point.”

Before getting carried away with a win over Cueto and the Giants, remember this is also a team that has allowed 46 runs in the first inning and needed 12 come-from-behind wins to stay two games above .500. The longest winning streak so far is four games and that happened a month ago. 

“I don’t think that our deficits are because guys don’t show up to play,” Hoyer said. “You give up a two-run homer in the first and now you’re scrambling from behind. The one thing about baseball is I feel like when you’re not hitting, when you’re making some errors, the first thing people point to is: ‘Oh, they look dead. They look tired.’”

The Cubs have been at the .500 mark at eight different points this season – without suffering a major injury and while getting contributions from Triple-A Iowa (Ian Happ, Eddie Butler) and nailing their biggest offseason move (Wade Davis). 

There are reasons why Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a team win back-to-back championships since the New York Yankees became a three-peat dynasty – 1998, 1999, 2000 – on top of their 1996 World Series title.

“I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would be) taking anything for granted,” Hoyer said. “I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet. And I think we will.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: 'We weren’t going to play more than 60 games'

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: 'We weren’t going to play more than 60 games'

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made an interesting revelation Wednesday about negotiations between MLB and the players union. In an interview with Dan Patrick, Manfred said the 2020 season was never going to be more than 60 games given the spread of the coronavirus — at least by the time they got to serious negotiations two weeks ago.

“The reality is we weren’t going to play more than 60 games, no matter how the negotiation with the players went, or any other factor," Manfred said on The Dan Patrick Show. "Sixty games is outside the envelope given the realities of the virus. I think this is the one thing that we come back to every single day: We’re trying to manage something that has proven to be unpredictable and unmanageable.

"I know it hasn’t looked particularly pretty in spots, but having said that, if we can pull off this 60-game season, I think it was the best we were gonna do for our fans given the course of the virus."

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Manfred unilaterally imposed a 60-game season after the two sides couldn't come to terms. The union rejected the owners' final proposal, retaining the right to file a grievance against the owners for not negotiating in good faith.

Whether Manfred's comments become a point of contention in any grievance the players might file is unclear. The league would likely argue Manfred was referring to negotiations after his face-to-face meeting with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark on June 16. Manfred's comments to Patrick's follow up question — if the league would have been willing to go to 80 games, had the players agreed to all their terms — also points to this.

"It’s the calendar, Dan. We’re playing 60 games in 63 days. I don’t see — given the reality of the health situation over the past few weeks — how we were gonna get going any faster than the calendar we’re on right now, no matter what the state of those negotiations were.

"Look, we did get a sub-optimal result from the negotiation in some ways. The fans aren’t gonna get an expanded postseason, which I think would have been good with the shortened season. The players left real money on the table. But that’s what happens when you have a negotiation that instead of being collaborative, gets into sort of a conflict situation.”

The players' final proposal called for a 70-game season. At this point in the calendar, 60 games in 69 days (Sept. 27 is the reported end date for the regular season) leaves room for a couple more games, not 70 (or more).

So, Manfred's right that 60 games on the current timetable was probably the most MLB can fit in amid the pandemic. But you have to wonder if the union will use those comments in a potential grievance. 

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Cubs fan base named second most loyal in MLB, only trailing Red Sox

Cubs fan base named second most loyal in MLB, only trailing Red Sox

When you wait more than 100 years for a championship, you must maintain a strong sense of loyalty to your favorite team. 

Cubs fans have done that, supporting the club through thick and thin, from the mediocre years to the curse-breaking 2016 World Series season. They pack the Wrigley Field stands, consistently ranking in the top 10 in attendance season after season.

That devotion led to Forbes naming Cubs fans the second most loyal fan base in Major League Baseball, second to only the Red Sox.

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Per Forbes, the rankings are based on "local television ratings (per Nielsen), stadium attendance based on capacity reached, secondary ticket demand (per StubHub), merchandise sales (per Fanatics), social media reach (Facebook and Twitter followers based on the team’s metro area population) and hometown crowd reach (defined by Nielsen as a percentage of the metropolitan area population that watched, attended and/or listened to a game in the last year)."

All that science aside, does the 108-year wait for a championship warrant the Cubs being first on this list? In fairness, the Red Sox waited 86 years before winning the 2004 World Series, their first since 1918. Plus, in terms of attendance, the Cubs have only out-drawn the Red Sox in six of the past 10 seasons, a near-equal split.

Two historic clubs. Two historic ballparks. Two historic championships. In a loyalty ranking, you can't go wrong with either franchise. Here's how the list's top 10 panned out:

10. Braves
9. Phillies
8. Indians
7. Giants
6. Brewers
5. Dodgers
4. Yankees
3. Cardinals
2. Cubs
1. Red Sox

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