Cubs

Cubs find a way to beat Mets on Matt Harvey Day

5-13-cubs-shower.png

Cubs find a way to beat Mets on Matt Harvey Day

Joe Maddon sat down at the table inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon and a reporter asked if the Cubs manager could lead Wednesday night’s postgame news conference with Matt Harvey.

“Let’s start with Jason Hammel,” Maddon said, getting a few laughs after a 2-1 walk-off win over the New York Mets.

All the talk about this four-game litmus-test series has revolved around the first-place Mets and their young power arms and how the Cubs will measure up with their stable of power hitters.

The Cubs will now go for the sweep on Thursday afternoon after Hammel allowed only one run across eight innings and that young lineup finally broke through against New York’s bullpen.

[MORE CUBS: Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?]

The Cubs outlasted The Dark Knight of Gotham.

“It was going to be the first guy to blink,” Hammel said. “And I was actually the first guy to blink. But we battled back.”

The ninth-inning rally began with Anthony Rizzo’s leadoff single against Mets reliever Carlos Torres. Pinch-runner Matt Szczur went first-to-third on Starlin Castro’s hit-and-run single to left field. An intentional walk to Miguel Montero loaded the bases in a tie game.

After Jorge Soler struck out – and with five infielders in – Chris Coghlan worked a five-pitch walk against Mets closer Jeurys Familia. That sparked a mosh pit along the first-base line.  

“This team’s just different,” Coghlan said. “I know that you guys (in the media) have to compare. But you just really can’t compare, at least last year to this year or the years before. Because we have so much more talent. We have different chemistry. We have different options.”

Harvey has done late-night comedy for Jimmy Fallon, posed naked for ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue” and gained 136,000 followers on his personal Twitter account. Not that Hammel (3.11 ERA) and rest of this Cubs rotation necessarily feels overshadowed or underrated.

“That’s the New York media,” said Hammel, who escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning and notched his fourth straight quality start. “They’re going to get talked about all the time. Not to say that Chicago is any lighter.

“Obviously, they had a great start to the season (an 11-game winning streak in April). We’ve lost a couple real close ones where we could be ‘hyped.’

“But we don’t really care. We’re playing quality ball right now. As long as we keep coming out and grinding out at-bats, playing our 27 outs, we should be fine.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Harvey, the 2013 All-Star Game starter who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, dominated for seven scoreless innings, giving up three hits and two walks against nine strikeouts.

“Every advertisement he gets, he earns,” Coghlan said. “It’s tough to admit that, but he throws and commands all four pitches. He didn’t really throw many fastballs. It was all slider, cutter, curveball, a couple changeups, and then he’ll throw the heater in there late. Not many guys that can throw 95-98 (mph) are going to do that. That’s why he’s so effective.”   

The Cubs are now 18-15, winning six games in their last at-bat and feeling like they can play with anyone, anytime, anywhere.

“There’s a great vibe in our dugout,” Maddon said. “We’re developing into this group. We’re starting to really believe. When you’re able to win games late on a consistent basis that becomes part of the fabric. It’s really important to feel that way. You’re going to have to win games like that. You have to beat good pitching by pitching better than good pitching.”

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

davidrosscubsconap.jpg
AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.