Cubs

Arms race: Cubs send message in sweeping Mets

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Arms race: Cubs send message in sweeping Mets

Cubs manager Joe Maddon coughed twice before beginning his postgame news conference inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon.    

The fog machine in the clubhouse got to Maddon, who needed to clear his throat after celebrating Thursday’s 6-5 comeback victory over the New York Mets, finishing a four-game sweep of the National League East leaders.

“I’m just going to have to put my mask on before I walk through it,” Maddon said, sniffling after his 800th career win. “God, every night, I’ll take it. I’m not complaining.”

That would be a classic jump-the-shark moment: Maddon doing a “Breaking Bad” dress-up trip for a rebuilding job that should have required hazmat suits.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs (19-15) and Anthony Rizzo Productions now have Chauvet DJ lighting equipment hanging from the clubhouse ceiling and a completely different vibe from the teams that finished in fifth place for five years in a row.  

“No one gives up,” Rizzo said. “Guys come to work every day and compete. We’re young. We have fun. And we have great veteran leadership.”

Who knows how long this dance party will last? On Thursday afternoon, Rizzo got hit for the 10th and 11th times this season, and the Cubs can’t afford one of those fastballs drilling their All-Star first baseman in the wrong spot. Catcher David Ross left the game with abdominal tightness. And Travis Wood (5.59 ERA) got knocked out in the fifth inning, leading to more questions about the back of the rotation.  

But as Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson said: “The potential is definitely there.”

The Cubs erased 3-0 and 5-1 deficits, getting a jumpstart from Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run in the fourth inning and using their deep lineup to wear out the Mets (20-15).

[MORE: Russell getting comfortable playing off shortstop]

A team that went 0-79 when trailing heading into the ninth inning last season has already won six games in its last at-bat this season, going 10-6 so far in one-run games.

“Very businesslike,” Maddon said, describing the mood in the dugout. “We get down, nobody’s panicking. Nobody’s saying we can’t do this. I think there was a great believability within the group that we could do it.”

The Mets (20-15) left Wrigleyville barely holding onto first place, their lead over the Washington Nationals shrinking to just one game. This series had been framed as another measuring stick for the Cubs, New York’s young power pitchers against Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell.

[ALSO: Cubs still see Soler as a monster in the making]

“It’s really cool,” said Bryant, who delivered a game-tying RBI single in the fifth inning and has driven in 10 runs in the last 10 games. “The Mets have a really good system. I’ve been following along with them, playing against them, and we got some pretty good young guys here. We just hope that we can continue that trend and do something in this game.”

The Cubs didn’t back down from Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jon Niese. They didn’t commit an error during this four-game series. A beat-up bullpen immediately looked sharper with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel pitching deep into games, not giving up a run in 9.2 innings combined.    

It’s only a snapshot, but for all the hype about the arms race between the Cubs and Mets, this looked more like two teams heading in opposite directions than two teams on the rise.     

“We respect everybody, but we should not revere anyone,” Maddon said. “I really dig our staff. I like our personnel a lot. I think the Mets have a wonderful thing going on, absolutely. But there’s got to be respect and not reverence.” 

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."