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Cubs need to come up with answers for pitching problems

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Cubs need to come up with answers for pitching problems

MILWAUKEE — If everything’s going so great around the Cubs, why did backup catcher David Ross pitch for the first time since Little League?

Joe Maddon almost always delivers money quotes for the media, and he doesn’t believe in throwing his players under the bus. The manager is thoughtful, engaging, refreshing and aware of life outside baseball. But there are also times where he goes into happy talk and starts sounding like Rick Renteria.  

“We got our butts beat, but I was really, really pleased with the effort once again,” Maddon said, leading off his postgame session with reporters following Saturday night’s 12-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. 

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But the Cubs (15-14) can’t gloss over the issues that keep building around their pitching staff, whether it’s a rotation that hasn’t eaten up enough innings, a bullpen searching for answers or a shaky defense that keeps giving opponents extra chances:

  • Travis Wood only lasted four innings against the worst team in baseball, giving up six runs, four earned, as his ERA nearly ballooned to 5.00. Kyle Hendricks (0-1, 5.61 ERA) will start Sunday afternoon against the Brewers (10-21).

Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have accounted for 11 of the rotation’s 14 quality starts. The Cubs simply aren’t getting enough length out of the back end of their rotation.

“You just keep putting them out there, man,” Maddon said. “You put your guys out there until it happens. You keep working with them. You keep showing a positive message to them. The work’s good. The work’s great, actually. For some of the guys, it’s just not playing all the way through yet. But it will.”

And if it doesn’t, then the Cubs might have to start looking harder at external solutions.

“Obviously, you’ll talk about things,” Maddon said. “You’ll talk about things internally and try and figure out if there’s a better way to do things, absolutely.”

  • This definitely stresses the bullpen and opens up the middle of the game to the weaker spots on the pitching staff. Edwin Jackson couldn’t get an out in the fifth inning and was charged with three runs. Phil Coke allowed both inherited runners to score and now has a 6.52 ERA.

There are no great answers for Maddon in that situation.

“Every team, every GM, every manager…you’re always evaluating,” Maddon said. “That conversation exists all the time, even through what appears to be good moments and then bad moments, too. You’re always looking to see if there’s something we can do a little bit better.”

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  • Pedro Strop admitted he hasn’t been feeling the same oomph with his fastball lately, but he wouldn’t break the code and blame it on his workload.

“I’m not that person,” Strop said. “Maybe somebody else will say it, but not me. I just like to battle, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Strop began the season with 12 scoreless outings but has since watched his ERA jump to 4.26. He woke up on Saturday tied for the major-league lead with 16 appearances.

“I’m kind of used to that,” Strop said. “And it’s early in the season, too, so I don’t want to use that as a complaint. My fastball, it doesn’t have that life that I need, and we’re working on it.”

Maddon believes everything will even out with Strop, who reemerged as an elite setup guy since getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.   

“I’m not worried, because the numbers are the same,” Maddon said. “He might be feeling something right now, but the numbers are the same.”   

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  • At the same time, closer Hector Rondon feels like he hasn’t been pitching enough to get into a really good rhythm, because the Cubs haven’t had that many save opportunities. Rondon went five days between his fourth and fifth saves, and then another five days between his fifth and sixth saves this season.

Rondon admitted he might have lost his edge on Friday night, not having the same adrenaline rush with a four-run lead and nearly blowing it before hanging on for a 7-6 win. Rondon also shook off catcher Miguel Montero a few times and threw Milwaukee 19 straight fastballs, all between 94 and 96 mph.

“You should never get wild with your fastball only,” Maddon said. “When you’re out there just throwing fastball, fastball, fastball and you’re walking people, throw something else. That’s like Catching/Pitching 101: Do not permit a pitcher to get wild with his fastball — and a pitcher should know that.”  

Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

It’s quite fitting Andy Green’s introduction to Cubs Nation came at the team’s annual fan festival this weekend.

Green, whom the Cubs officially hired as bench coach in December, grew up a Reds fan in his native Lexington, Ky. It wasn’t long before his allegiances changed to one of Cincinnati’s geographic neighbors, however.

“I went to [former Reds ballpark Riverfront Stadium] as a kid at like 5, 6, 7, first time I saw big-league baseball,” Green told NBC Sports Chicago on Saturday. “But my mom took me up to Wrigley at 12 or 13. I was like ‘This is big-league baseball.’

“I switched over allegiances that time as a Cubs fan, watched Ryne Sandberg — Mark Grace was somebody who jumped off the page to me at that point in time. It was late 80s, early 90s.”

After four years managing the Padres, Green’s childhood fandom has come full circle. Now, he’s David Ross’ right-hand man, brought in to use his own experience managing to help the first-year manager adapt to his new position.

When Green took the helm in San Diego in 2016, the Padres were in the thick of a full-scale rebuild. He holds a 274-366 won-loss record, but that isn’t indicative of what he’s bringing to the Cubs dugout.

“Andy so far for me probably [has been] the biggest help for me in directing my thoughts, getting things organized, getting prepared,” Ross said Saturday at a coaching staff panel. “This guy has been through the season, the National League, knows the details of what it takes to lead.

“Obviously, his resume and what he’s done building a young group over in San Diego speaks for itself. Who he is as a person, Andy right off the bat probably [has] been the biggest help for me. Sends me text messages, emails about leading, about coaching. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I’m very blessed to have him next to me in every game. You guys are gonna see a great product, and a lot of my big decisions, I’ll have a great mind next to me helping me make those.”

Green said he’s spent the last few months learning what Ross’ vision is as a manager and how he intends to execute it going forward. Managing games and preparing for them are different beasts, but Green can already see the intangibles that could make Ross successful.

“He’s fun to work with, he’s hungry to win, he can hold people accountable and smile at the same time, which is an unbelievable skillset that I don’t have,” Green said of Ross. “People feel it when I come down on them. They feel love when he comes down on them. He just has that [relatability] that very few people do, and that’s incredibly impressive to me.”

Accountability has been the word of the offseason for the Cubs. After five seasons with Joe Maddon as manager, the club felt it was time for a new voice in the dugout. They hired Ross not only to try and make the team greater than the sum of its parts, but also hold players accountable, putting them in their place and using tough love when needed.

Ross will have a lot on his plate this season, so he'll rely on Green to lead in areas as needed and take a load off his plate.

“For [managers], there’s a large number of tasks that if you have a capable staff, you can just delegate and not even think about,” Green said. “I want to take that kind of stuff off his plate, stuff that doesn’t have to have the manager’s attention, because you can get some decision fatigue, because it’s amazing what comes at you in that seat.

“I know what that feels like, so every now and again, it’s nice to have somebody who doesn’t just have the answer but has the feelings that come with the answer. I’ve enjoyed it, and honestly, it’s a whatever he needs type thing. My vision on him is I’ve watched him do so much prep work this offseason getting ready for game decisions. He’s going to be great. He’s going to be great.”

It also helps that Green has four years of managing under his belt. Ross can learn from his successes in San Diego, but also learn from Green’s failures to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes common in new managers.

“It takes a little minute to know where the best answer is on the bench, and he’ll figure that out pretty quickly,” he said of Ross. “Executing the game decisions, you have to find out in time how he processes those things.

“I made a lot of mistakes. He can learn from my mistakes without having to make them himself. If you can share things in humility, a lot of times it keeps somebody else from repeating your mistakes. There’s things I messed up on, things I did well too. Kinda share those visions along the way and make certain the whole way that this is David Ross’ team and he’s leading this team and all I’m here to do is support and help him and help the players perform at their top level.”

Green spent four years with a losing club. He’s joining a Cubs team full of star players — which, as functioning infield coach on a team with Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, excites him. He wants to win now and believes Ross is the man to lead the way.

And, again, the lure of being a Chicago Cub was strong.

“The fan base is one that you’re fired up to go to work for and bring a winner to,” he said. “Whatever part I can play in that, I’m fired up to do it.”

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Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras and viral moments at Cubs Convention go hand-in-hand.

At the team’s annual fan festival in 2018, Contreras stole the show with a story from the 2017 season. During a mound visit against the Cardinals, the Cubs catcher gave profanity-laced advice to Jon Lester, the Cubs starter who rarely throws pickoffs due to a serious case of the yips.

"I went out there and I said, 'Hey motherf--ker, throw the f--king ball to first,'” Contreras recalled in January 2018.

Contreras stole the show again Saturday, telling a story about a moment against the Cardinals — this time from the 2019 season.

“So last year, we were facing the Cardinals and I started talking to [Marcell] Ozuna,” Contreras said. “He told me ‘Just call a fastball right down the middle.’ [And I said] ‘Yeah okay, I will.’ Then I called the fastball and he took it.

“I told him ‘What the f— are you talking about? Just hit the ball, just hit it.’

“He asked me ‘Just call it again.’ And I did it. He took it. Swing the [bat]. I called a third pitch and it was a strikeout. And then next time it was like just ‘Shut up,” or something."

Warning: graphic language

How Contreras will top this at 2021 Cubs Convention is uncertain, but considering he now has two viral moments on his resume, we can be sure the next one will be just as amazing.

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