Cubs capitalize on Cardinals mistakes, even up NLDS


Cubs capitalize on Cardinals mistakes, even up NLDS

ST. LOUIS - They always say the sign of a really good team is taking advantage of the opponent's mistakes.

The St. Louis Cardinals have done that for decades, but Saturday, it was the Cubs flipping the script for a 6-3 victory in Game 2 of the National League Division Series to even the series at one game apiece. 

The Cubs scored five unearned runs in the second inning, capitalizing on Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia's throwing error. Without getting the ball out of the infield, the Cubs scored on three straight at-bats, coming on bunts from Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell before Dexter Fowler's infield hit.

[MORE: GIFs - Cubs score five in second inning of Game 2 vs. Cards]

The Cubs couldn't push across any runs against John Lackey and the Cardinals bullpen in Game 1, so Joe Maddon got creative with his pitcher at the plate.

"Any way we could score any runs, obviously, especially in this ballpark," Maddon said. "They're such a good ballclub. We've talked about it before, whenever you have a chance to score, you have to take advantage of that opportunity and we did today."

Maddon compared the back-to-back squeeze bunts to the Green Bay Packers' offensive line in his childhood, a well-oiled machine that ran a sweep play all the time. Even though defenses knew it was coming, the Packers still executed and nobody could stop it. 

"I'm just saying, when it comes to [the squeeze play]," Maddon said, "even if the other team knows you may be doing it, if you do it properly, you could still do it. But everything has to be aligned properly."

Jorge Soler followed all the bunting with the big blow — a two-out, two-run shot to dead center field.

Just like that, the air was sapped out of the Cardinals, who had jumped out to an early lead again in Game 2 on Matt Carpenter's leadoff homer.

Hendricks pitched well after that Carpenter longball, setting down 14 of the next 15 batters before surrendering back-to-back homers to Kolten Wong and pinch-hitter Randal Grichuk in the fifth inning.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Travis Wood came on in relief and immediately shut the door, allowing just one hit in 2.1 innings of work. Trevor Cahill bridged the gap in the eighth inning with a dominant shutdown frame, striking out two batters.

Hector Rondon closed things out in the ninth, allowing just an infield hit.

"The bullpen was outstanding," Wood said. "Kyle kind of paved the way. He got into a little bit of trouble, but he was able to get us to the fifth and a couple of solo homers. 

"I was fortunate enough to come in and be able to get us two-and-a-third and then Cahill came in and did outstanding and Ronnie closed the door. You can't ask for much more."

The Cubs and Cardinals return to Wrigley Field for the next two games in this series, beginning Monday evening with Jake Arrieta vs. Michael Wacha.

No matter what happens from here, Maddon loves the experience the Cubs' young players are getting, being thrown into the fire.

"I've been talking about winning a wild-card game and maybe two out of three right now," Maddon said, "and who knows where this is going to take us, but the point is, down the road, the fact that these guys are getting this kind of experience or handling it in this way matters.

"So that's my takeaway from all this."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.