Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central


Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs have done a lot of talking but haven’t backed it up yet.

Of course, there is plenty of time to live up to the Bloomberg Businessweek cover — “a sports empire is in bloom” — with more than 80 percent of the schedule remaining and all this blue-chip talent waiting to mature. 

But after Sunday afternoon’s 11-inning walk-off loss to the worst team in baseball, the Cubs left Miller Park with a 15-15 record and no real sense of momentum.

The Cubs have now lost two series to the Milwaukee Brewers in early May — one before they fired their manager, one after — missing an opportunity to make a big statement in the National League Central. 

A 3-2 loss and another blown save left the Cubs with a negative run differential (-9) this season. A young lineup still getting used to split-second recognition at this level got shut down by ex-Cub Matt Garza and struck out 16 times overall. This team also woke up on Mother’s Day leading the league with 27 errors.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We’re a lot better than a .500 team, absolutely,” Kyle Hendricks said. “We know that. We’ve been losing some ballgames we shouldn’t have been losing and we’re all part of it. I am. The whole team’s part of it.

“That’s how baseball goes. You get in a tough patch, you got to get out of it. We know we can beat these teams. And we know we’re going to once we get rolling.”

With breakdowns across the board magnifying every move, even Joe Maddon sounded a little defensive during the manager’s postgame media session.

Hendricks, a feel pitcher without much margin for error, looked sharper this time, throwing 5.1 scoreless innings, though Maddon trusted him to throw only 85 pitches.    

“Before we took him out,” Maddon said, “(Elian) Herrera hit the ball hard, Garza hit the ball hard, (Carlos) Gomez hit the ball hard, (Scooter) Gennett hit the ball hard, (Ryan) Braun hit the ball hard, (Adam) Lind hit the ball hard…for those that are paying attention.”

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Justin Grimm finished the sixth inning cleanly, but Maddon got burned in the seventh with lefty Zac Rosscup, who gave up back-to-back homers to Martin Maldonado and Herrera, the seventh and eighth hitters who both began the day batting under .200.   

“I’m still 100 percent confident that we’re going to bounce back,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “Obviously, it’s part of the game. We’re going through a rough time. But with that being said, we got to make better pitches overall. That’s it.”

Montero – who homered off Garza in the sixth inning — understood why Maddon pinch-hit for him with a runner on third base in a tie game. Montero had gone 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in his career against Brewers lefty Will Smith, who struck out Matt Szczur to end the eighth.    

“I have no complaints about our group,” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better in certain areas. A lot of them, they’re frustrated, they don’t want to swing at the slider outside of the strike zone, either. They’ll stop doing that. Once we stop doing that, man, heads up.” 

After a 2-5 road trip through St. Louis and Milwaukee — and a 9-10 stretch within the division — it won’t get any easier.

Sections of the bleachers will finally reopen on Monday night as the New York Mets and their young power pitchers come into Wrigley Field for a four-game series that will test the franchise’s Big Bat Theory.

The first-place Mets will start with Jacob deGrom, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014. Noah Syndergaard, Baseball America’s No. 11 prospect heading into this season, will make his big-league debut on Tuesday. The next night, Matt Harvey, a 2013 All-Star Game starter, will face the young power hitters the Cubs have collected during their own slow, big-market rebuild.

The Cubs are hanging around, sensing an opportunity, but still waiting for everything to click. 

“You can be with a group of people (where) you know you might be at your limits,” Maddon said. “You might be at your Waterloo, in a sense: This is as good as we’re going to get. But I know that’s not the case with us, and that’s really the encouraging part of the whole thing.” 

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

The Cubs have some interesting roster decisions to make in the near future. 

The big-league pitching staff is potentially going to get very crowded very quickly with Tony Barnette now added into the mix, Craig Kimbrel close to making his debut and Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. nearing returns from their respective injuries. Somehow, the Cubs will need to open up multiple spots on their pitching staff.

Fans on Twitter are quick to solve the problem by saying "DFA Brad Brach," but it's hardly that simple and also probably not the best course of action for the franchise to cut ties with the veteran reliever.

Yes, Brach has not pitched well in his first season with the Cubs, especially lately — he has given up runs in eight of his last 12 outings and now carries a 6.14 ERA and 1.84 WHIP on the season. 

But there's more than meets the eye with his numbers and both he and the Cubs feel like they're on the verge of getting things in order.

"The most frustrating part is I feel like I've had some of the best stuff I've had in the last couple years these last five weeks and have just not gotten the results," Brach said. "Unfortunately this is a results-driven game, especially in the bullpen. If you're not getting the job done, you're not gonna be out there when the game matters and that's when I love being out there. 

"[The Cubs have] been really good about coming up to me — 'your stuff's there, just one little thing here or there.' But at the end of the day, I just gotta execute it and get the outs."

Brach has given up 32 hits this season, but only 8 of those have gone for extra bases and just 1 left the yard. He's given up homers at the same rate as Aroldis Chapman and among MLB pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, only six other guys have a better HR/9 rate than Brach.

Brach also woke up Monday morning with a .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him, which is roughly 100 points higher than the league average this season and 107 points higher than his career average (.290). His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is right around his norm (3.73 vs. 3.69 for his career) and has the lowest strand rate of his MLB life so there's an element of bad luck here.

On the other hand, he's also giving up more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before.

After walking 15 batters in his first 12.1 innings, Brach has gotten that under control — he's doled out only 1 free pass over his last nine appearances and 7 total in 17 innings since April.

"It's been really frustrating and it's been waves of frustration," Brach said. "Early in the season, I wasn't throwing strikes, walking a ton of guys and wasn't getting hurt. Now, I'm not walking guys and getting hurt by the single in a year when home runs are dominating the game. 

"It's definitely a frustrating thing. The contact's been pretty weak. Mine was just two rocky games. I just kinda have to look at it like those were two really bad outings and move on and hopefully I can get on a roll here."

Brach has a point there — nearly half of the runs he has given up on the season (8 of 20) came in back-to-back outings against the Rockies on June 5 and June 11, where he was tagged for 4 runs each time while getting only three outs combined.

He also has a long track record of success. Since his rookie season, the 33-year-old has never posted a season ERA over 3.78. From 2012-18, Brach had a 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 33 saves and averaged more than a strikeout an inning while also spending most of that time as a high-leverage reliever pitching in the AL East.

However, Brach did experience an up-and-down 2018 season (4.85 ERA with the Orioles in the first half, 1.52 ERA with the Braves in the second half) and he has been thinking back to that a lot as he tries to get out of his slump with the Cubs.

"If I didn't have last year's experience, who knows where I'd be right now," Brach said. "Last year was pretty bad, too. Just couldn't get any outs. I was getting hit hard — a lot harder than I have been this year, so at least I know it can turn around."

There's still more than half the season remaining and Brach has exactly the kind of stuff, pedigree and experience to be a valuable bullpen piece for the Cubs down the stretch.

"It's kind of baffling to us from the side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're trying to really dig into it and see if there's a thread there that we can bring to him. Because you watch him pitch from the side and the stuff is outstanding. It really is — the fastball-changeup-slider mix. 

"It's really hard to wrap your head around it. Some of it, I thought was a little bit of bad luck. Some of it has been late-count hits that he's gotta be a little bit better with 0-2, 1-2 counts. I'm trying to decipher all that. But purely from a physical perspective, he's throwing the ball great and he's not getting the results. And I think maybe then the confidence gets nicked a little bit, also. 

"That's where I'm at with him. I think he's throwing the ball wonderfully, but we gotta figure out — outside of a jam-shot, bad-luck knock every once in a while — what we can do to help him. This guy is such a wonderful team player. Everybody's behind him out there. Every one of us. We gotta figure it out because his stuff's that good."

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September?