Cubs

Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

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Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

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.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon hears from MLB after ripping umpire]

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.

[RELATED: For Cubs, closing the gap on Cardinals is easier said than done]

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.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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.”

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

Road struggles continue for Cubs in late-game implosion against Giants

It’s no secret that the Cubs have had their fair share of struggles on the road this season. Entering Monday’s game the Giants – the first of a nine-game road trip -- the Cubs held an 18-27 road record, 21st in all of baseball.

Things took a turn for the worse in that department on Monday night.

Clinging to a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, the Cubs called upon reliever Pedro Strop to shut down the Giants 3-4-5 hitters. Strop, who entered action with a 4.62 ERA in 29 appearances (5.40 in July), surrendered three runs on four hits – including three doubles. The end result was the Giants taking a 5-4 lead, ultimately the game’s final score.

While Strop’s outing will get the most face time due to it occurring in a high-leverage spot, the truth of the matter is that the Cubs struggled for much of Monday’s game. After taking an early 3-0 lead, they couldn’t pull away from the Giants, watching San Francisco slowly close the gap and cut the deficit to 3-2 in the fifth inning.

The Giants actually came close to tying the game at 3-3 in the seventh inning, though Steve Cishek was able to work out of a first and second, one out jam to keep the Cubs ahead. Plus, before consecutive two out singles in the eighth inning – one being an RBI from Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs an insurance run, the Cubs offense went through a 1-for-15 drought that began with two outs in the third inning.

At the same time, Strop struggling again is quite concerning. The 34-year-old has been the team's most reliable reliever for the past five seasons, posting sub-3.00 ERAs in each campaign from 2014-18. However, he's in the midst of a forgettable month, allowing seven runs on 11 hits in 7 2/3 innings. Strop also surrendered a game-tying home run in the eighth inning Friday against the Padres, though the Cubs were able to bounce back and win. 

Between their road woes and Strop's rough July, Monday's game did nothing to alleviate concerns over two unsettling Cubs trends. If there's one positive to take away from the game, it's that the Cubs were six outs away from picking up their third road win in seven tries this month.

Moral victories count for little when a team is in a heated pennant race, though, especially since the Cardinals took down the Pirates Monday to cut the Cubs' lead in the NL Central to 1.5 games. The Cubs have to find a way to get better on the road, and they have to find a way to get Strop back on track. Fortunately for the Cubs, there's still time to do both, as Strop pointed out postgame.

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What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central

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USA TODAY

What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central

The Brewers’ pursuit of second-straight NL Central championship suffered a devastating blow on Monday, as staff ace Brandon Woodruff landed on the injured list with a left oblique strain.

Woodruff, who exited Sunday’s game against the Diamondbacks in the fourth inning, is expected to be out for about six weeks. The 26-year-old is enjoying a breakout 2019 season in which he was named an All-Star for the first time. He ranks first among Brewers starting pitchers in wins (11), strikeouts (136) and innings (117 2/3) while ranking second in ERA (3.75) among pitchers with at least 10 starts.

The timing of Woodruff’s injury is unfortunate for the Brewers, who enter Monday two games behind the Cubs for first place in the NL Central at 53-48. Most teams aren’t equipped to lose their best starting pitcher for an extended period, especially in the thick of a pennant race. This is especially true for the Brewers, whose starting pitching has struggled in 2019.

Entering Monday, the Brewers starting pitchers rank 18th in MLB with a 4.73 ERA. This is a far cry from last season, when they ranked 11th with a 3.92 ERA. So, while Woodruff’s injury complicates matters, the Brewers already had a need for starting pitching.

The Brewers have a tough decision to make. They could swing a trade (or two) to give their rotation a much-needed boost. Potentially available pitchers include Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, Mike Minor of the Rangers, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers, Zack Greinke of the Diamondbacks and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, among others.

Acquiring a single pitcher isn’t going to solve the team’s woes, however, which Matt Clapp from The Comeback pointed out.

As Clapp said, any trade will likely require some form of prospect capital, and teams would be unwise not to ask the Brewers for rookie phenom Keston Hiura in negotiations. Hiura, 22, is hitting .331/.387/.613 with nine home runs in 37 games, though, so it’s tough to imagine the Brewers parting with him in any deal.

Thus, the Brewers either must create an enticing enough package without Hiura or stand pat. If they were to do the latter, they risk losing ground in the NL Central standings to the Cubs and Cardinals amid a tough stretch in their schedule.

From July 15-Aug. 4, the Brewers will play 16 games out of 19 against teams with .500 or better records. Although they’re currently 5-2 in that stretch, Milwaukee went 9-17 from June 14-July 14, a stretch of 26-straight games against teams with losing records. Woodruff’s injury, therefore, comes at a point in the Brewers’ schedule where it’s make or break time.

The Cubs have come out of the All-Star break hot, going 7-2 to give themselves the slightest amount of breathing room in the NL Central standings. With how the Cubs are playing, the division could become out of reach for the Brewers if they can’t stay afloat during their current stretch – let alone until Woodruff returns. Not to mention the Cardinals, who are 7-3 since the break and sit just a half game behind the Brewers in the division standings.

Of course, the Brewers were five games back of the Cubs in the NL Central entering September last season, only to win the division in Game 163. Their current position is certainly not ideal, but the Cubs and Cardinals aren't out of the woods yet. There has been a great sense of urgency within the NL Central all season due to the compact standings. For the Brewers, that urgency certainly is higher than ever now.

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