Cubs

Cubs Road Ahead: Looking to build some momentum at home

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Cubs Road Ahead: Looking to build some momentum at home

CSN's David Kaplan and Todd Hollandsworth preview the upcoming matchups against the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates in this week's Cubs Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

Joe Maddon acknowledged this week that the Cubs are still in a decent position even though they haven't played to their capabilities this season.

After Sunday's extra-inning loss to Milwaukee, the Cubs have now dropped seven of their last nine games, yet still sit in second place in the NL Central with a 15-15 record. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But it won't be easy to turn things around with a pair of difficult opponents entering Wrigley Field in the Mets — the surprise team of the MLB season so far — and the Pirates, who've won three of their last four games thanks, in large part, to Andrew McCutchen catching fire.

"Andrew McCutchen is starting to wake up. He's had a little bit of a better week this week," Hollandsworth said. "When he gets rolling, they seem to respond to him."

Check out what else Kaplan and Hollandsworth had to say in the video above.

 

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Cubs in a tight spot with their pitching staff the rest of this week

Well, we got a look at what life is like without Brandon Morrow.

The Cubs closer and the anchor of the bullpen all season was unavailable for the first game of Tuesday's day-night doubleheader due to back tightness, leading to Justin Wilson taking on closing duties in the ninth inning.

The end result was a 4-3 Dodgers win as they rallied for a pair of runs off Wilson on Kyle Farmer's pinch-hit, 2-run, 2-strike, 2-out double just past the glove of a diving Kris Bryant.

Joe Maddon said he obviously would've planned on using Morrow for the ninth inning if the Cubs closer was healthy but due to the back tightness suffered early Monday morning, Morrow is down for both games of the doubleheader (assuming the night game isn't also rained out).

That leaves the Cubs pitching staff in an even tighter spot than they already were as they're currently in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Monday's rain/light-out.

Let's start with the bullpen, which will be "raggedy" for Game 2, to quote Maddon, who admitted starter Mike Montgomery would have to be ready to go deep into the game.

Tyler Chatwood was only able to account for 5 innings in Game 1, leaving Steve Cishek to throw 14 pitches, Randy Rosario to throw 10 pitches and Pedro Strop 29 pitches before Wilson tossed 27 in the final frame.

That probably means Strop and Wilson are down for the rest of Tuesday and may make it a bit of a toss-up for either guy's availability Wednesday even with the surprise off-day Monday.

Cishek and Rosario should be able to throw Wednesday for sure and may be able to go in a limited capacity in Game 2 Tuesday.

That leaves Luke Farrell, Anthony Bass, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock as the guys that are completely fresh at the moment. Hancock is up from the minors as the 26th man for the doubleheader and Zastryzny replaced Brian Duensing for this week while the veteran went on the bereavement list.

Without Morrow and with a loss already under the belt to open the Dodgers series, the Cubs bullpen is in a bad way and no scheduled off-day until July 2.

The starting rotation is in a bind, too, as now they'll need a starter for Saturday's game in Cincinnati assuming there are no more rainouts along the way.

With Chatwood's start pushed back to Tuesday instead of Monday, the Cubs now need an extra guy in the rotation.

The Cubs' probable starters for the rest of the week: Jon Lester (Wednesday), Kyle Hendricks (Thursday), Jose Quintana (Friday) and then a question mark Saturday before Chatwood would be ready to throw again on Sunday.

One option could be a "bullpen day" for the Cubs, but given how much they'll need to lean on that unit with the doubleheader and no off-days this week, that seems like a risky option.

The Cubs could also call somebody else up from Triple-A, but the options, such as Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills or Duane Underwood Jr.

Tseng has an ugly 8.21 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the minors this year and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in 2 innings in a spot start earlier this season.

Mills has limited big-league experience and had been pretty solid for a while with Iowa, going 3-3 with a 3.39 ERA averaging nearly 6 innings an outing over a 10-start span from late-April to early-June. But he got shelled his last time out (6 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 2.2 innings on June 17).

Underwood — the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012 — also had a really nice stretch with Iowa for a while (3.08 ERA over 9 starts from April 14 to May 28), but has regressed in June (14 runs on 18 hits and 7 walks in 13.1 innings).

Either way, this is a really tough stretch for a Cubs team that was just beginning to find its groove and get on a roll.

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."