Cubs

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

MIAMI – Jon Jay walked into a quiet clubhouse late Sunday morning, turned right and headed directly toward the sound system in one corner of the room, plugging his phone into the sound system and playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

The Cubs outfielder whistled as he changed into his work clothes at Marlins Park, singing along to the lyrics with Anthony Rizzo a few lockers over: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.” 

That’s what the Cubs keep telling themselves, because most of them have World Series rings and the National League Central is such a bad division.

“The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 4-2 loss left the Cubs treading water again at 38-37. “We’re solvent. We’re right there. We’re right next to first place.”

In leaving this relaxed tropical environment after a 4-2 loss, the Cubs will jump into the deep end on Monday night for the start of a four-game showdown at Nationals Park, where Dusty Baker will stack his rotation with Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and hope Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman can outslug a bad bullpen.

Maddon already sounded doubtful about All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, who mishandled the spin on a routine Ichiro Suzuki groundball in the first inning and later exited the game with a “sharp, pinching pain” at the front of his right shoulder.

Miami sunk the Cubs with three unearned runs after Russell’s error, part of a season-long trend where the defending champs can’t seem to put it all together in every phase of the game. Martin Prado drilled Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch, 93-mph fastball off the left-center field wall for a two-out, two-run double and the Cubs will have to play sharper against the first-place Nationals (45-30).

“It could be a great test,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “It will be nice to see where we’re at against them.”

The Cubs had enough trouble against Edinson Volquez and the Miami bullpen, translating eight hits and seven walks into only two runs while leaving 11 runners on base. That wasted a quality start from Montgomery (1-4, 2.03 ERA), who lasted six innings and retired the last 10 batters he faced. More than anything, Maddon sounded disappointed in Willson Contreras missing a hit-and-run sign in the seventh inning and Ian Happ getting thrown out at second base.

“Keep The Floaties On” sounds like an idea for Maddon’s next T-shirt. The 2017 Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 or two games under .500 at any point this season. The 2016 Cubs didn’t lose their 37th game until July 19 and spent 180 days in first place.

“That’s what was so special about it,” Rizzo said. “We boat-raced from Game 1 to Game 7 with a couple bumps in the road, but this is baseball. It’s not going to be all smooth-sailing every day. You got to work through things.”

The Cubs might be working without the safety net of a wild card when the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are all on pace for close to 100 victories in the brutal NL West. For all their inconsistencies, the Cubs are still only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a division where the other three teams could become trade-deadline sellers.

“I know that, but I also know that we have not had that run yet, which I believe we have (in us),” Maddon said. “I’m waiting on us to get well. I want our young guys to (use) the whole field, hitting-wise, and see where that can take us. Right now, our starters are pitching like we thought that they could.

“I’ve always wanted to win the division, obviously. We’ll just play that out. It’s too early for me to really be concerned about that yet. We’re pitching better. We’re catching the ball better. And now all of a sudden, they’re starting to use the whole field. So let’s see where this takes us right now.”

Sink or swim, the Cubs are going into the nation’s capital, less than six months after their White House visit. The big idea will be survival more than dynasty in what could still be a playoff preview.

“We’re looking forward to play them,” Montgomery said. “We know where they’re at. We know we could see them down the line.”

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

The 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t started yet and there’s no telling if the league will complete it in full due to COVID-19. In any case, the 2021 Cubs schedule was officially announced on Thursday.

The Cubs will open at home for the second straight season, taking on the Pirates at Wrigley Field on April 3. It’s the first time since 2011-12 the North Siders will open the season at Wrigley Field and third time in four seasons their home opener is against Pittsburgh.

2021 also marks the second consecutive year the Cubs will play the AL Central in interleague play. This includes six games against the White Sox (Aug. 6-8 at Wrigley; Aug. 27-29 at Guaranteed Rate Field). Their first interleague series is May 11-12 at Cleveland.

The Cubs travel to Minnesota (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) and host the Royals (Aug. 20-22) for the first time since 2015.

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Check out the full schedule:

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Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.

“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.

“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”

Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?

“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”

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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.

He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.

The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.

But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.

If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.

Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?

“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”

The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.

Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.

But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.

Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.

“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.

“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.

“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.

“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”

He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.

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