Cubs already running out of buttons to push with this team: 'These are our guys'

Cubs already running out of buttons to push with this team: 'These are our guys'

NEW YORK — John Lackey became the snapshot of frustration on the Citi Field video board, a TV camera capturing his “God damn it!” reaction after Asdrubal Cabrera hammered an 88-mph fastball over the center-field wall for a four-run lead in the fourth inning.

Seeing the New York Mets might evoke memories of the 2015 team that caught fire and won 97 games before fizzling out in the National League Championship Series, but these Cubs have already played most of their cards, pushing the buttons struggling teams push to jolt the clubhouse.

Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, because the Cubs have largely outgrown Joe Maddon’s stunts. Theo Epstein hasn’t gone Full Metal Sveum, threatening to send struggling hitters down to Triple-A Iowa, mostly because the Cubs don’t have better internal options.

Another classic Lackey response after Monday’s night 6-1 loss, when a reporter mentioned that Maddon suggested pregame the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time in Queens: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

The St. Louis Cardinals just rearranged Mike Matheny’s staff and put their manager on notice, but the Cubs obviously can’t fire a three-time Manager of the Year two months after Maddon and his coaches got their World Series rings for ending the 108-year drought.

The Cubs already promoted Ian Happ in the middle of May — and it’s hard to envision another top prospect giving this team a shot of adrenaline and becoming this summer’s version of Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras.

Between Brett Anderson’s ineffectiveness/inevitable injury and Kyle Hendricks’ tendinitis, the Cubs have already dipped into their reserve depth for the rotation, and the drop-off from Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery would be extremely steep if any of these 30-something pitchers (besides Lackey) feel their age.

The July 31 trade deadline is seven weeks away, and what will the sense of urgency or desperation feel like in the front office if the Cubs keep playing like this? Of course, the Cubs are interested in controllable starting pitchers, which is like saying little kids like ice cream, because 29 other teams have the same general idea.

The big team meeting near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip in late May didn’t lead to a breakthrough, the Cubs now 31-32 with 16 of their next 19 games on the road. These players will either figure it out or they won’t.

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“The group’s so damn young,” Maddon said. “You’re not looking to move them out and bring this new guy in. There’s really no reason to really want to look, other than an injury right now. These are our guys. And I believe in these guys a lot.

“Of course, I’d like to be 10 games over .500. But we’re not. We’ve earned it. We’ve earned the right to not be 10 games over .500 right now. But we’re capable of doing that.”

Not when Lackey (4-7, 5.26 ERA) gives up three homers and needs Jason Heyward to make two catches at the warning track in right-center field. After Cabrera’s second home run, Contreras had to walk out toward the mound in the fourth inning and stand in between Lackey and home plate umpire Mike Winters.

“You guys like to compare,” Lackey said. “We don’t have to be last year’s team. We just got to be better than the teams in (our division).”

Good point. The Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, and this looks and feels nothing like the NL Central of two years ago, when the Cardinals won 100 games and the Pittsburgh Pirates won 98.

That 2015 Cubs team also watched Jake Arrieta turn into the most dominant pitcher on the planet, Dexter Fowler get hot as the you-go, we-go leadoff guy, the pitching infrastructure rebuild the bullpen on the fly, Addison Russell transform the middle-infield defense and Starlin Castro accept his new role and go on one of those crazy streaks after the initial bruise to his ego.

“What it would take?” Maddon said. “Just that we get back to our offensive DNA — that guys who have not really performed to their level would. I think that’s the next thing that needs to happen and will happen, because once that happens, then the energy throughout the entire everything will accelerate.”

Jacob deGrom made this feel like the 2015 NLCS all over again, throwing a complete game, getting double plays in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings and limiting the damage to Russell’s solo home run.

“We can’t keep using that as an excuse — that the other team’s pitcher is good,” Maddon said. “We got to start beating some better pitchers. Period. You don’t get to the promised land without winning games like that.”

At what point would you become concerned?

“Whenever how many games back you are is more than how many games you got left,” Lackey said. “I don’t think we’re that close yet.”

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”