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.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Can the Cubs clinch the playoff berth or will the Brewers continue to sneak up on them?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Can the Cubs clinch the playoff berth or will the Brewers continue to sneak up on them?

Ozzie Guillén and Scott Podsednik join Leila Rahimi from the studio to talk about the Cubs potential for clinching the playoff berth. Will the Brewers continue to sneak up on the Cubs?

Plus, Is Moncada's season considered a success?

Listen here or in the embedded player below!

Why Jason Heyward believes this Cubs team can still accomplish something special this fall

Why Jason Heyward believes this Cubs team can still accomplish something special this fall

Jason Heyward always has an edge to him, but he's taken things to a little bit of a different level lately as the Cubs try to fend off all challengers in an intense final week of action.

When answering questions in front of the TV cameras, radio microphones and recorders, Heyward often pauses and takes his time to form his response when answering questions. He doesn't say anything by accident, and he's usually politically correct and cliche with his answers — almost boring, even.

So when Heyward used the word "shit" in back-to-back sessions with the Chicago media over the last few days, it stands out — a calculated fire at a time when the Cubs need all the fire they can get.

The man with the greatest rain delay speech in the history of professional sports is the voice the Cubs need to listen to once again right now.

"I've only had like a week-and-a-half of baseball in my career that the games didn't mean shit and that's where I feel like I take a lot of pride in that and we take a lot of pride in that here," Heyward said. "These guys in here, they know what it's like to lose. ...You can't take it for granted that you have an opportunity like this one.

"So that's where our head is and we enjoy it down to the end. We have fun with it, we look it in the eye. It's a blast in here for us."

The Cubs woke up Tuesday morning with only a slim 1.5-game lead in the division over the Milwaukee Brewers, a magic number to clinch at Wrigley Field still stuck at 5.

They've had just one day off since Aug. 20 and will not get another opportunity to reset mentally or physically until Monday and by then, this playoff race will be in the bag.

"[We've handled this stretch] beautifully," Joe Maddon said. "We've gone through a very difficult stretch...I think our guys have been doing a great job, actually. After a tough loss, we've been able to come back and play well the next day.

"We haven't taken a bad moment and let it manifest itself for a couple days. During the course of the game, they're very lucid. They interact well, the energy level's good. Those are the kind of things I try to attach myself to.

"The biggest thing is I would say after a bad day that you're able to flush it and come back and treat the next day as a different entity — brand new experience — and I think that's what we do well."

Heyward is an unquestioned leader inside the Cubs clubhouse — a guy who doesn't talk a whole lot, but when he does speak, everybody listens. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park earlier in the season and turned off MLB Network on the TVs because they were talking about how great the Cubs offense was at the time. 

Yes, he turned the TVs off even though the analysts on MLB's flagship station were painting his team in an overwhelmingly positive light. 

Why? Heyward wanted to make sure the guys blocked out all outside noise, even good stuff.

And that's exactly what he and Maddon and Jon Lester are trying to keep the team focused on right now — controlling what they can control and tuning out all the rest.

Sure, they're checking the scores of the Brewers game every night and they know the reality of the situation.

But when they're between the white lines, it's all about keeping the focus, which is an area Heyward has seen a lot of growth from this team over the last three seasons.

"It's beautiful," he said. "It's amazing to see the confidence come in, the experience that we've gained. Just how much fun these challenges have been for all of us to be able to lean on each other and go through them together.

"Honestly for me, the day I walked in this door, seeing Rizz, KB, Javy, a number of guys — just seeing them from then to now, it's a huge difference in a good way."

Heyward acknowledges the offensive roller coaster the Cubs have been on this season, but pointed to the extreme parity in the National League while the top-heavy American League has very little to decide over the season's final week.

At the same time, he doesn't understand the roller coaster the fans have been on this season with expectations around this team sky-high.

A few years ago, Cubs fans were just content with their team making the playoffs. Now every year is World Series or bust and the goal is to coast to a division title just like in 2016.

Except that's not how baseball works most of the time.

"I mean, for the fans, it's been 108 years. They've done that. So what we've done is reverse that and reverse that thinking," Heyward said. "But again, what people don't understand is how many teams are good baseball teams this year.

"They don't get that. The last place team in our division is a good baseball team. If you look at the lineup they put out there every day, it's a really good lineup. I've never seen a season where so many moves are made at the deadline, after the deadline by teams that are in it and out of it.

"That just shows you how good the competition is gonna be and how good it's been this year. You gotta give credit. You gotta understand that as a baseball team."