Cubs

Carl Edwards Jr. showing Cubs he can handle being thrown in the fire

Carl Edwards Jr. showing Cubs he can handle being thrown in the fire

MILWAUKEE — Carl Edwards Jr. is pitching in the majors in April for the first time ever but he's making the case that he's Joe Maddon's most valuable reliever.

The Cubs have a very talented bullpen that features three guys who have had a lot of experience closing games, yet Edwards and his 43 career games have earned Maddon's trust.

In the Cubs' season-opening series against the Cardinals in St. Louis, Edwards got some big outs, including preserving the 6-4 victory Thursday with a pair of strikeouts.

"I have a lot of faith in him," Maddon said. "I'll put him in any situation — hot spot or whatever you want to call it. No doubt.

"I don't want to lose the game in the sixth inning if that's the vital moment. He's the kinda guy where you say, 'CJ, we need you in the sixth,' it's not going to impact his psyche. It's not like he's not gonna be ready because you're surprising him. He'll be ready.

"He's the kinda guy you want in a big moment — a dirty moment — inning in progress and he can still hold his own and work his way through it. I like him in that moment."

Edwards attributes a lot of his success in the "dirty" moments to getting in control of his emotions and keeping his breathing in rhythm. 

That was something he spent a lot of time working on last season after getting a cup of coffee in the big leagues toward the end of 2015.

Edwards understood the mental component of the game and as he got in control of his emotions through breathing, his confidence soared. A 2.84 ERA in eight postseason games during the Cubs' World Series run certainly helped, too.

"[My confidence] is pretty much the same as it was last year," he said. "I try to stay in the middle. I don't try to get too high or anything. 

"I try to keep it as simple as possible. Just try to go out there and do what I have to do to get outs and help my team."

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Edwards said he has a good feel for all his pitches right now and knows in a Joe Maddon bullpen, he can be called upon at any time, in any situation. 

Which is just the way he likes it.

"I feel like from last year to this year, I would be put in the fire," Edwards said. "When everything gets running and they call [down to the bullpen], I have a good feeling it could be me. I like that role — has a lot of pressure and a lot of adrenaline."

The Cubs have made sure not to overuse the 25-year-old Edwards, refusing to pitch him on back-to-back days with an eye on keeping his rail-thin frame healthy down the stretch.

But Edwards may make that a hard thing to stick by as the 2017 progresses as he proves he can be effective — and dominant — in any situation. 

Maddon pointed to Edwards' exchange with Cardinals slugger Jedd Gyorko Thursday where Edwards threw a 2-2 curveball the Cubs thought was in the zone but didn't get the call. So Edwards came right back on the full count with another curveball, this one undoubtedly a strike.

"That's the kinda stuff that you really get good — when you're able to have the confidence making that pitch," Maddon said. "Moving forward, they're writing stuff down, they got all the reports — he did this to Gyorko, etc.

"So that brings the fastball into play on a full count next time, too, so the hitter is uncertain. He just continues to develop."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPN.com) and Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The guys discuss Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension, the Cubs struggles and if Joe Maddon could be on the hot seat if the Cubs somehow miss the playoffs in 2018.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."