Cubs

Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

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Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Baseball’s marathon schedule doesn’t lend itself to statement games, and nothing will be decided in early May, but the Cubs should find out what they’re made of here at Busch Stadium.

To be honest, the Cubs haven’t held up their end of the rivalry since winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. The St. Louis Cardinals continue to be the gold standard, with 11 playoff appearances since 2000 and 11 World Series titles overall.

The Cardinals (19-6) still have the best record in baseball after Monday night’s 10-9 victory over the Cubs in front of 41,981 and a national-TV audience. The Cubs have done a lot of things right in their deliberate rebuild, but nothing will be handed to them in the National League Central.

“I love this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want our guys to love this. I hate that I constantly bring up the past, but the Rays got better because they played in Yankee Stadium a lot and they played in Fenway Park a lot. That’s how these guys are going to get better.

“You got to get past that point where – I don’t want to say you’re intimidated by it – but you’re taken by it a bit. You’re not as comfortable with it. And then you start embracing it. You start looking forward to it. As our young guys start getting into this moment here, I really believe that we’ll be that group also.”

[RELATED: Maddon, Cubs sticking with three catchers]

The Cubs put up five runs in the first inning, and knocked out Carlos Martinez by the fourth, but the Cardinals are relentless. St. Louis does not quit. Mark Reynolds responded with a grand slam off Travis Wood in the first inning, and the Cubs bullpen could not stop the bleeding.

Help is on the way: Justin Grimm threw a scoreless inning for Triple-A Iowa on Monday and appears to be very close to rejoining the team after his right forearm injury.

James Russell is also trying to force the issue after getting released by the Atlanta Braves near the end of spring training and returning to the organization on a minor-league deal. The lefty has not allowed a walk through 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa, notching 12 strikeouts.

The Cardinals have an assembly-line quality to them, still rolling even with ace Adam Wainwright missing the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Cardinal Way won’t go away, which became a talking point during Cubs president Theo Epstein’s end-of-season news conference last year.

“How do you balance like admiration and contempt?” Epstein said. “I’m a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals, but I also admire the way they run their baseball shop…for basically the better part of a century.

“They’re really consistent. They make good decisions. All the way back to George Kissell, they teach the game the right way. They stay true to that vision of how to play Cardinals baseball, and they develop homegrown players who are loyal to it.

“I hate to say this on the record, but in some respects, we have to do a lot of things they do in order to be successful. On the other hand, I think we’re building something that has the chance to go toe-to-toe with them and surpass them. I think we have the chance to win this division, and win it on a consistent basis, and we’re going to need to in order to win the World Series.”

[CUBS ROAD AHEAD: A measuring stick in St. Louis]

Kris Bryant (four walks) and Addison Russell (2-for-5, home run) got their first tastes of the rivalry and should be fixtures for years to come. The Cubs are 13-11 – 5.5 games behind the Cardinals – and will get three more chances to make up some ground this week.

“I’m here to tell you, man: You want to play good teams,” Maddon said. “If you want young kids to get better, you want to play the best teams as often as you possibly can.”

Yu Darvish finally has his first win at Wrigley

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USA TODAY

Yu Darvish finally has his first win at Wrigley

Yu Darvish blew a 98 mph fastball by Yasiel Puig, pumped his fist emphatically twice and let out a primal yell as he walked off the mound while 37,260 fans at Wrigley Field backed him up with maybe the loudest "YUUUU!!!" chant of the season.

It was the final pitch he threw on the afternoon as he completely dismantled the Reds lineup in a 4-2 Cubs victory.

Since the All-Star Break, Darvish leads Major League Baseball in ERA — he hasn't allowed a run in 12 innings while striking out 15 and giving up only 4 hits and a walk. 

Oh yeah, and he finally picked up his first Wrigley Field win in a Cubs uniform...in his 28th start.

In both outings to start the second half, he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and they're also the only two scoreless starts he has as a member of the Cubs (he gave up 0 earned run April 27 last year against the Brewers, but was charged with an unearned run).

The Cubs are now 5-1 since the All-Star Break and will carry a 2.5-game lead in the division into action Friday when the San Diego Padres come into town.

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

Just a few weeks after utilizing a six-man rotaiton, the Cubs are considering dropping back to a four-man starting staff for a bit.

Cole Hamels threw a bullpen Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field and reportedly felt great, but he's still at least a week or so away from returning to the Cubs rotation.

Couple that with the four days off for the All-Star Break last week and regular off-days coming up (three more still in July), the Cubs don't have an actual *need* for a fifth starter more than once between now and Aug. 3, as their four mainstays will be able to go on regular rest.

"We're gonna discuss that internally — things we want to do," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "We have the ability to go with a four-man [rotation] for an extended period of time with those off-days."

Hottovy acknowledged a four-man rotation is the Cubs' preference rather than keep Alec Mills in the rotation long-term, but there are many factors to consider.

"Our guys are feeling good, so we don't want to push the envelope with all these off-days and [tell the pitchers], 'you're still gonna be on a five-day rotation,'" Hottovy said. "So we gotta all talk and communicate about how guys are feeling and make that decision."

The Cubs have been cautious with their pitchers coming out of the break, too, given they've all been thrown off their normal rhythms and routines. It's also worth noting that Kyle Hendricks is still working his way back up to full strength after a shoulder injury cost him much of June.

When the Cubs opted to go with a six-man rotation last month, the whole idea was to rest these guys and make sure they're feeling fresh for the second half and down the stretch. The team had a pretty brutal stretch — 52 games in 54 days — before the All-Star Break.

But if everything continues to progress with Hamels and his oblique injury, the Cubs may not need a four-man rotation for long, even if they opt to go that route. 

After Wednesday's bullpen, the Cubs are going to give Hamels a couple days to recover and will plan another bullpen for this weekend (likely Saturday). Just like with Hendricks' recovery, the first bullpen is more for a gauge to see where the guy is at physically and then the second one will be more of a normal routine and getting back into rhythm mechanically, etc.

Following that weekend bullpen, the Cubs don't know yet whether they're going to have Hamels throw a simulated game or go on a rehab assignment as the next step. They'll evaluate all that this weekend and thanks to the regular time off coming up, they know they don't have to push it.

"If he feels good, we also don't want to slow-play Cole Hamels," Hottovy said. "He's a guy we want in the rotation."

The Cubs are off Thursday but then play six straight games and they will need a fifth starter for that stretch (next Tuesday in San Francisco).

As of right now, it sure looks like that guy could be Mills, who rebounded nicely after a rough first inning during Tuesday night's victory. 

Mills — a 27-year-old right-hander — has only pitched 11 career games in the big leagues, but he's been a nice depth option for the Cubs the last couple years. Including Tuesday night, he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 24 big-league innings for the Cubs the last two seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence [in him]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely a big-league caliber pitcher. I don't think he's a 4-A guy; I think he's more than that. He just needs opportunity."

Both Maddon and Hottovy mentioned Mills' last start with the Cubs last August when he gave up a first-inning grand slam to the Mets before settling in to throw 4+ innings of solid ball from there.

Tuesday night, Mills got two quick outs (thanks in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s defense) and then served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suarez, who absolutely kills the Cubs. From there, it was back-to-back hit batters and then a groundball basehit that went right to where third baseman Kris Bryant would've been standing had he not broke for the bag to cover on a steal attempt.

Mills was inches away from getting out of the first inning with only 1 run allowed, but he also only eventually escaped the jam when Almora threw a runner out at home plate on a double off the wall — or else there could've been even more damage.

After that, Mills held the Reds scoreless for the next five innings to notch the first quality start of his career.

"He regrouped well," Hottovy said. "Millsy's a pro. The guy's been mostly a minor-league guy, but I still consider him kind of one of those veteran guys. He's smart, he's poised. He comes in after that inning and he's like, 'Yeah, I thought I did this well, I didn't do this well.' And then we talked through it and he's able to wipe it clean and then reset. 

"It was such a good job by him to be able to do that with a good hitting team — to come back and set the tone. It's easy to have that inning and then kinda let things keep escalating. He was able to go right back down the next inning and shut 'em down and that really set the tone."