Cubs will feel the energy from a playoff push


Cubs will feel the energy from a playoff push

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs began the dog days of August only one game out of a playoff spot.

Cole Hamels or David Price didn’t walk through the doors of the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park, but at least the Cubs didn’t feel the same emotional letdown at the trade deadline. Those fire sales and all the roster churning could leave you looking around the room wondering: Wait, who’s that guy?

The Cubs can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel now, assuming a young group that can play down to bad teams maintains focus and doesn’t slam into the rookie wall.

“This is the tough month to get through,” manager Joe Maddon said before Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “You got to show up every day and play. Everybody gets a little bit fatigued, mentally and physically.”

[MORE: Miguel Montero’s future becoming unclear as Schwarber sticks with Cubs]

If the Cubs needed a boost, there was a sellout crowd and Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza on the mound. It also looks like Anthony Rizzo is heating up again, ready to carry the offense on his shoulders.

Rizzo blasted Garza’s 94 mph fastball out to right field in the third inning, a towering three-run homer that landed in the second deck. That shot gave Rizzo four home runs in his last four games – a four-game winning streak for the Cubs (56-47) – after the All-Star first baseman hit zero bombs between July 8 and July 28.

“I’ve been looking forward to August all year,” Rizzo said. “We’re home for a long time. It’s hot in Chicago. We know what can happen at Wrigley when it warms up. I’ve been saying that all along to everyone: We’re going to have a big August.”

Five pitches after Rizzo’s homer, Garza – an ex-Cub flipped during one of those deadline deals – hit Kris Bryant, drilling the All-Star around his elbow pad.

[RELATED: Why didn’t Theo Epstein make a splash at the trade deadline?]

“Garza’s not a headhunter,” said Maddon, who managed him on Tampa Bay’s 2008 World Series team. “That’s not his DNA. That’s how I knew him with the Rays. He was not the kind of guy that’s going to try to hit somebody. I think he was trying to pitch him inside.

“I really believe you know when something’s intentional or not. For us, nothing was intentional.”

A TV camera still caught Bryant smiling when Kyle Hendricks hit Ryan Braun with a 1-2 pitch just below the left shoulder while leading off the fourth inning. Braun wound up scoring the only run against Hendricks (5-5, 3.67 ERA), a young pitcher with pinpoint control acquired during one of those deadline deals.

Hendricks pitched into the eighth inning and walked off the mound to cheers from the Cubs fans standing on their feet in Milwaukee.

“We’re definitely confident,” Hendricks said. “The lineup’s coming around, guys are swinging it now. We’re keeping the runs off the board. The bullpen’s doing an unbelievable job.

“We feel really confident right now against whoever we play. Just got to keep that rolling through August and September.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans] 

Beginning Monday, the Cubs will get seven games in seven days against the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, the two National League teams ahead of them in wild-card positions. There will be nothing routine about that, no going through the motions.

“Once you get to September, if you’re in that hunt, you find the energy every day,” Maddon said. “It just shows up. The weather starts to break. It gets a little bit cooler. Plus, the idea that (you) know that you’re right there and you have this opportunity.

“Energy just happens. So this is the month that you have to manufacture it a little bit. That’s the big push for us.”


Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.