Cubs: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby


Cubs: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby

Cubs manager Joe Maddon hasn’t been too enthusiastic about his players participating in the Home Run Derby in the past, but he’s not wringing his hands over Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant entering the annual competition Monday at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.

The Cubs’ two All-Stars — and Nos. 2 and 3 hitters — on Thursday accepted invites to the Home Run Derby, with Bryant facing Los Angeles’ Albert Pujols and Rizzo facing Toronto’s Josh Donaldson in the first round of an eight-player, head-to-head bracket. Major League Baseball made a few tweaks to the derby that should shorten the event, which helped allay some of Maddon’s concerns about the centerpieces of his lineup participating in it.

In short, each batter gets five minutes per round, with bonuses being awarded for hitting a certain number of home runs or hitting long home runs (more details here). The upshot likely will be players swinging less and not getting worn out as easily.

“It’s been governed to the point now where it should be not as lengthy and that’s maybe not as much going on, which I think is a good idea,” Maddon said. “So I knew their (Bryant and Rizzo’s) preference. I think that they’ll handle it properly, and if there’s ever been a tie for the winner, I’d like it to be this year.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs' Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo to participate in Home Run Derby]

Maddon didn’t require the 23-year-old Bryant and the 25-year-old Rizzo to come to him for approval on their respective decisions to join the Home Run Derby. Bryant entered Thursday night with 12 home runs, tied for 44th-most in baseball, while Rizzo’s 16 home runs rank 20th.

“It’s their decision,” Maddon said. “We could talk as much as we want, part of it’s for the betterment of Major League Baseball. Also the fact that this has been a big part of generating interest, and we have two kids that really generate a lot of interest.”

This year’s Home Run Derby will draw plenty of interest in Chicago but is sorely lacking in star power. Giancarlo Stanton is hurt, while Bryce Harper declined an invitation with his dad — who threw to him in the 2013 Home Run Derby — unable to participate following rotator cuff surgery.

But Bryant will have his father, Mike, throwing to him on Monday, while Rizzo can continue to grow his national profile with a strong round of glorified batting practice in Cincinnati.

“I think I decided to do it more for (my dad) so he could experience it with me and share that with me,” Bryant said. “We’ve always talked about it growing up.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Bryant still has fewer than 300 at-bats as a major leaguer but feels he’s suited for the Derby. Forty-eight percent of his balls put in play have been fly balls, and FanGraphs characterized about 37 percent of the contact he’s made as “hard,” so he doesn’t anticipate changing his swing to compete with the rest of the field (Todd Frazier, Joc Pederson, Pujols, Donaldson, Prince Fielder, Manny Machado and Rizzo) on Monday.

So Bryant and the Cubs aren’t concerned a second-half slump could be in the offing following next week’s All-Star festivities.

“I think if you talk to any baseball player, they’ll tell you they try to hit homers in BP,” Bryant said. “It’s no different.”

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.