Cubs

Cubs: Sitting Kyle Schwarber pays off for Joe Maddon in Game 2

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Cubs: Sitting Kyle Schwarber pays off for Joe Maddon in Game 2

ST. LOUIS – You’re going to start second-guessing Joe Maddon now?

The Cubs manager guided this team through the toughest division in baseball and into this National League division series, seeing a 24-game improvement from the year before. Maddon isn’t going to change for the St. Louis Cardinals or get sentimental at playoff time.

So wild-card hero Kyle Schwarber — who had two hits and a walk in Friday’s 4-0 loss — didn’t see his name in Saturday’s Game 2 lineup against St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia. Jorge Soler (right) and Austin Jackson (left) started in the corner outfield spots at Busch Stadium, a different look for a deep team that values versatility.

[MORE: Cubs grab momentum and put the pressure on Cardinals]

Soler wound up hitting a double and a two-run homer off Garcia and walking twice in a 6-3 win the Cubs absolutely had to have in this best-of-five matchup. Jackson – who has a reputation for being a solid defender – also stole a base and scored a run during that pivotal second inning.

“The beauty of our lineup is that you can insert George, who hasn’t played a whole lot, and he goes deep,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s just the strength of our lineup. We got a lot of depth and Joe picks the right guys at the right time.”

Sitting Schwarber — who blasted 16 homers in 69 regular-season games but hit only .143 against left-handers — would be an easy decision for a manager who strongly believes in the mix-and-match philosophy.

“It’s not difficult, honestly, for me,” Maddon said. “His body of work this year against lefties in general has not been very good. I believe he’s going to be better in the future with that.

“But why have these other guys on the roster if you’re not going to utilize them?”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs didn’t have a huge mental database against Garcia, who hadn’t pitched in the rivalry since April 2012 but did overcome a series of injuries to get back into a playoff rotation for a 100-win team. The Cardinals said Garcia left the game with a stomach virus after giving up five unearned runs in two innings.

Against Garcia, left-handed hitters had performed relatively better than right-handers (.630/.557 OPS) this season. But Maddon also wanted to get Soler’s big bat involved and respected Jackson’s postseason experience with the Detroit Tigers (35 playoff games between 2011 and 2013).

“They’re here for a specific purpose,” Maddon said. “And this is the purpose — to play against this guy today. Now this guy can read reverse if you look at it in a body of work. But I’ve never seen (Garcia with my own) eyeballs.

“I’ve never actually watched him play, so I’m relying on even more information. And a lot of it indicates that he’s trending back towards being more conventional. So that’s why we went with the righties today.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.