MILWAUKEE — Joe Maddon’s glass is always half full. But the Cubs manager has a point when he says this team hasn’t come close to clicking on all cylinders.
Maddon’s plastic cup of Blue Eyed Boy shiraz was almost empty by the time the media entered his office late Friday night after what should have been a cruise-control victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Cubs survived at Miller Park, hanging on for a 7-6 win over the worst team in baseball that had several bright spots and warning signs. They blasted four home runs, got seven strong innings from Jason Hammel and endured too many anxious moments out of the bullpen.
“We have not played up to our capabilities yet, and we’re still in a decent spot,” Maddon said. “Overall, quite frankly, before the season began, if you asked for this record on this date, a lot of people would have bought into it and said: I’ll take it.
“If we had been just pitching like crazy or just hitting like crazy it wouldn’t be as attractive. But we haven’t done anything particularly great yet. But we’re gonna, because we have those kind of athletes.”
The Cubs wound up needing Kris Bryant’s athleticism with two outs in the ninth inning, when the 6-foot-5 slugger hustled to first base and got rewarded with an infield single after a replay review, driving in what turned out to be the game-winning run on a three-strikeout night.
“I just want that reputation of playing hard,” Bryant said, “and respecting the game and ‘Respecting 90,’ like Joe says. That’s what I’ll continue to do.”
It mattered because closer Hector Rondon served up a three-run homer to Ryan Braun in the ninth inning — and then allowed two consecutive singles — before finally ending the game.
“Our bullpen guys got to get this done,” Maddon said. “We’re not going anywhere without (our) bullpen being very dominant. You have to have a dominant bullpen to really win 90-plus games, and that’s our goal.”
The Cubs needed this after losing that reality-check series to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. There were moments where it looked exactly how the Cubs drew it up in the offseason.
Dexter Fowler, acquired from the Houston Astros in January to be an offensive catalyst, led off the game with a home run off Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee’s top prospect entering last season and the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2014.
Anthony Rizzo continued his elite-level season in the fourth inning by crushing a ball 425 feet into the second deck in right field for his sixth homer. Moments later, Cubs fans here started high-fiving each other after Jorge Soler launched another homer that bounced off the center-field ledge, just to the right of the batter’s eye.
With all the bullpen issues, the Cubs wound up needing this from Starlin Castro in the ninth inning, driving a ball 426 feet into left field’s second deck.
As Maddon said after going over the final stat line: “Fifteen punch(outs). Four homers. Rock and roll.”
The Cubs are 15-13 now, even with Bryant having zero homers through 21 games and Jon Lester putting up a 6.23 ERA in April. Key relievers Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez have missed time with injuries while Pedro Strop — who allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning — seems to be overworked.
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Of course, the Cubs can’t bank on all the rosy predictions and best-case scenarios: What if all these young hitters don’t figure it out sooner rather than later? Do you trust the bullpen? What if Lester and/or Jake Arrieta get injured and the rotation unravels?
Those are questions for another day, because the Cubs are relevant.
“We’re not really even clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Hammel (3-1, 3.52 ERA). “It’s two things go good one night, one goes bad. Once we start putting it together, pretty special things are going to happen here. As long as we keep grinding.
“We look at every day: Win each game. And then it comes down to series. You win series, you’re going to be pretty good at the end of the fight. Obviously, we haven’t played our best baseball.”