Cubs

Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed

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Cubs getting off to the fast start they absolutely needed

Anthony Rizzo must be feeling pretty good about his winning-the-division prediction.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rizzo said, sounding annoyed at the wise-guy question.

The Cubs had completed less than 12 percent of their schedule after Monday night’s 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. But a young team that’s used to being buried by this point will take 11-7, running one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

“Huge,” Rizzo said. “We preached it in spring training: We got to survive April. We can’t put ourselves in a hole like we’ve done in years past. We’re doing a good job of coming to the park every day and playing with a lot of energy, having fun and really playing with a purpose.”

Surrounded by reporters, Rizzo stood in front of his locker, inside the cramped clubhouse that now has a shiny disco ball hanging from a ceiling fan. Loud rap music blasted from the sound system when the media entered the room.

Joe Maddon likes to say the heavy lifting had already been done by the time he left the Tampa Bay Rays and scored a five-year, $25 million contract. But after winning the offseason – and dealing with their fifth manager in six seasons and an overhyped group of prospects, not to mention the usual Wrigleyville distractions (see Porta-Pottie-Gate) – the Cubs absolutely needed a sense of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon hates the idea of the DH in National League]

The Cubs generated 10 hits from the first six hitters in their American League-style lineup and wore down the Pirates (11-9) in front of 29,159 at Wrigley Field. Jason Hammel – last year’s sign-and-flip guy – put up eight scoreless innings and now has allowed one walk against 23 strikeouts through 25-plus innings.    

Inside the interview room/dungeon, a reporter asked Hammel: Is it too early to project this is going to be a really good team this year?

“We’ve been doing that since January, right?” Hammel said, delivering another great one-liner. “We know what we have in this clubhouse. We’re excited. It starts with Joe. He’s given us one hell of a feel. He came in and made us know that we’re going to have a good time while we were winning.

“It wasn’t the drill-sergeant type. It wasn’t looking over our shoulder being the mother, the dad, whatever. It’s letting us go out and be ourselves and just play baseball.

“We’ve worked really hard at understanding that we don’t care what anybody else says. It’s what we have.”

The Cubs have Rizzo (2-for-3, one walk, two RBI) leading the majors with a .494 on-base percentage. Kris Bryant (2-for-4, two RBI) has been as good as advertised, putting up a .938 OPS through his first 10 games in The Show. Starlin Castro is hitting .324 and pushing himself to be in the Gold Glove conversation at shortstop.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We were wanting a good April, and we’re on our way to having one,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But I think it’s been earned. The guys have really fought hard every game, and I really like the identity that we’re creating for ourselves.”

The Cubs have already notched five victories in their final at-bat. They are 8-4 against the division and 3-0 in extra-inning games. All this without $155 million ace Jon Lester (0-2, 6.23 ERA in four starts) coming close to hitting his stride.

“I really think it’s a best-case scenario as far as the identity of the team,” Epstein said, “the mood and the spirit surrounding the team, how they really have bonded with one another and are fighting through all 27 outs.

“That’s been fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun to be around. But I don’t really overanalyze the early-season performance, because baseball’s all about grinding it out through six months. And you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

It’s a good sign when Addison Russell’s Wrigley Field debut (1-for-3, one run scored) might be the sixth-most interesting headline that night. Compare that to the way the Chicago media treated Rizzo and Castro with wall-to-wall coverage when they first arrived at Clark and Addison.

“It’s just the strength of our lineup,” Rizzo said. “Anyone can do it at any time. We’re really happy with the way we’re grinding out at-bats early in the game, which can be setting us up for later in the game. We’re making pitchers work. That’s what we want to do every time. Every at-bat (should) be a stressful at-bat on the pitcher.

“We just have a really good feeling in here right now. And we just got to keep rolling with it.”

MLB Power Rankings: The final week is here

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USA Today

MLB Power Rankings: The final week is here

We've only got a few of these left! This is the penultimate Power Rankings for the 2019 season, and like HBO, it's our most exciting yet. Changes at 14-15! A 2-spot fall for a playoff contender? The Tigers are still bad!

Just here for the slideshow? Happy to see this stupid joke format go away after next week? 

CLICK HERE FOR THE MLB POWER RANKINGS

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.

“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.

The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.

It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.

“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”

Some way wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that, is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.

“Physically I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The balls coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pregame. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."

If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.

“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here til the end. We still got a lot of games.”

Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.

“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”

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