Cubs starting to look more like themselves as Kyle Hendricks and Anthony Rizzo take care of Giants

Cubs starting to look more like themselves as Kyle Hendricks and Anthony Rizzo take care of Giants

The San Francisco Giants again seem to be bringing out the best in the Cubs – or at least maybe sharpening their game and shaking them out of a World Series hangover. 

This isn’t as urgent as the dramatic playoff series that ended with a champagne-and-beer celebration in the Bay Area last year. It’s too early to tell if it will be the same spark as that four-game sweep in August 2015, when the Cubs caught fire, winning 97 games and two postseason rounds and fueling a free-agent spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million. 

More than 25 percent into the schedule, the 2017 team has already gone through several stops and starts without gaining a real sense of momentum. 

But the Cubs looked more and more like themselves on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, hanging on for a 5-4 win in front of 35,617, validating the internal belief that this would only be a matter of time for an All-Star lineup and a rotation stocked with Cy Young Award candidates.

“You got to put your head down,” said Anthony Rizzo, who launched two home runs off Giant lefty Matt Moore, slamming balls off the video ribbon in right field and into the center-field bleachers. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go on a streak.’ 

“You win one game at a time. You play one game at a time. And you lift your head up, and the next thing you know, you are where you (should be).”

Kyle Hendricks is the ultimate keep-your-head-down personality in a star-studded clubhouse. He again looked like a No. 2 starter in a playoff rotation, following up Jon Lester’s complete game by limiting the Giants to two runs across seven strong innings.

Whether or not this ends up in another top-three finish in the Cy Young vote, Hendricks has posted a 1.96 ERA in his last six outings, solidifying a rotation that had been the bedrock for a championship team (but has only 19 quality starts this season). 

“That was probably the strongest I felt,” Hendricks said. “We pride ourselves on going deep. More often than not, when you can go seven – or more than seven – you’re giving yourself a really good chance to win. It’s cutting down the innings for the bullpen, too, keeping them fresh. There’s a lot that plays into that.
“We’re definitely picking it up, getting our legs underneath us. You can see it from every guy, just the pitches they’re making, the life of the ball coming out of their hands.” 

It’s easy to see the impact when Rizzo – who’s 10-for-27 with five homers and nine RBI so far on this eight-game homestand – generates this much force and takes pressure off his teammates.  

“He really runs this lineup,” Hendricks said. “When he starts getting hot, I think everybody around him starts to (heat up).”  

The Cubs needed that, because Wade Davis showed he’s not a ninth-inning cyborg when Mac Williamson won a 12-pitch at-bat and lifted a two-run homer into the right-field basket. Until that ball flew over Jason Heyward’s head, Davis hadn’t allowed an earned run through 18 appearances in a Cubs uniform – or a homer since September 2015. Davis (10-for-10 in save chances) is still the kind of dominant closer the Giants desperately needed last October. 

The Cubs are now 24-21 and a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Eddie Butler will try to win the series on Thursday afternoon and show he’s a long-term answer for the rotation, going up against ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija (1-5, 4.57 ERA) and a Giant team (20-28) that’s gaining no traction in the National League West. 

“The one thing that I really like about the team is we (never) lost confidence,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to just go out and expect to win. (It’s not) showing up and you’re going to win. No, we’ve got to play the game.”

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."