Cubs

Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

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Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

MESA, Ariz. Alfonso Soriano had nearly lost track: This is what? Number three?

Soriano had a smile on his face he usually does but hes on his third manager since signing that 136 million contract, a different one in each of the last three years.

Whether its Soriano expecting everyone to give 100 percent now, or chairman Tom Ricketts saying people are working a little harder, its not difficult to read between the lines.

This offseason blew up nearly every assumption you could make about the Cubs organization. Ricketts found his voice as an owner and hired Theo Epstein to run baseball operations.

Epstein didnt look for a celebrity manager and hired Dale Sveum, who doesnt seem to care at all about the television cameras. The Cubs could sit on the sidelines while Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got their megadeals and hand the first-base job to a Pacific Coast League MVP (Bryan LaHair).

Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley arent taking up all the oxygen in the room. This front office traded away several top picks who were supposed to be part of the future (Andrew Cashner, Tyler Colvin, DJ LeMahieu), and wont be as loyal to certain veterans in the clubhouse.

The Cubs are starting over. Again.

Its a breath of fresh air, utility man Jeff Baker said. Sometimes I felt like there was a comfort zone people got in and guys never really got out of that comfort zone. I think a lot of guys are going to be more on edge, which I think is a good thing.

Baker was acquired from the Colorado Rockies on July 2, 2009, when Aramis Ramirez was on the disabled list and first place was still within reach (2 12 games out by days end). So Baker has seen the crash up close, and perhaps the first steps out of it.

Everyone has a clean slate, whether youve got 10 years in the league or you got zero days, Baker said. You know everyones going to be treated the same. Thats been made very clear and its about performance and production. I think a lot of guys can appreciate that. What you see is what you get. Players respect that.

Reliever James Russell made his big-league debut on Opening Day 2010 in Atlanta. Zambrano got four outs in a 16-5 loss to the Braves. A historian would note that the Cubs had never before allowed that many runs in an opener, the most since a 15-3 loss to the New York Gothams in 1884, when they were called the Chicago White Stockings.

So Russell has seen Lou Piniella in tears, the rise and fall of Mike Quade and all the enthusiasm generated by the Epstein hire.

Its kind of crazy, Russell said. Youre a rookie and you think everythings perfect and then all of a sudden Lou had his situation and had to leave. (Then) we get Q and thought everything was going to be great. Of course, that didnt really pan out, so now maybe third times the charm.

Russell loved playing for Piniella: Its a privilege playing for a guy thats going to be in the Hall of Fame. And Russell had a good relationship with Quade: It was just sad to see how everything kind of unfolded, but it might have worked out for the better.

Camp Sveum is all about the details. There is the yellow string running in front of the catchers during bullpen sessions, so the pitchers focus on that part of the strike zone. There are multiple cameras filming it behind the fence.

There are blue marks on the bases to show where your foot should touch. There are tape marks on the screen where outfielders make practice throws, almost a box that creates a target.

Every teams going to win 60 games and lose 60 games, Sveum said. Whatever happens those other 42 games depends on how you run the bases, how you play fundamentally, how you catch the ball, how you throw strikes. All these things come into play.

Its hard to imagine another teardown or change in philosophy anytime soon. Thats what lured Epstein from the Red Sox, a chance to build another organization in his image. No one should get too comfortable.

Hes just a straight shooter. Hes going to tell you like it is, third baseman Ian Stewart said. Our goal is to win the World Series and really nothing less. Its not about winning a wild card or getting to the playoffs. We want to win the whole thing, similar to what he did in Boston, and theres no reason why we cant do it here.

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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