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.”

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

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.