Cubs won't overreact to rough week at the plate

Cubs won't overreact to rough week at the plate

MILWAUKEE - Anthony Rizzo gave a three-word answer to the first question he was asked after Thursday's loss and paused for a brief moment before a big grin spread across his face.

Rizzo joked that he was trying to pull a Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach known for giving brief, simple answers in sideline interviews.

The Cubs are in the midst of their toughest week of the 2016 season, but they're not stressing about it.

Rizzo and the high-powered Cubs offense that led the National League in runs scored entering play Thursday managed just seven runs against a Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff that has the third-worst ERA in baseball.

"Give them credit," Rizzo said. "All series, they pitched us well. They played us really well. We just didn't come out on top."

Joe Maddon believes the Cubs hit into some bad luck in the first two games of the series, but was more ready to tip his cap to the Brewers after Game 3. He also insisted there are no lineup changes coming to shake things up.

The Cubs struck out 15 times Thursday against Junior Guerra and two Brewers relievers.

It was the first time the Cubs had whiffed at least 10 times since last Wednesday and only the third time in 17 May games.

Beginning with Sunday's loss to Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs didn't score before the ninth inning in three straight games (Dexter Fowler halted that streak with a leadoff homer Thursday).

So how are the Cubs dealing with this offensive lull? In part, by refusing to admit it really is a lull.

"It's a matter of perspective," Fowler said. "Some guys are hitting the ball well, just not finding any luck. It's baseball."

Yet the Cubs still came mere feet away from pulling out Thursday's game.

Fowler drove a ball to the wall in right-center with two on in the ninth inning, but Brewers right fielder Ramon Flores tracked it down for the second out. It was just one of a handful of warning-track shots the Cubs hit in the series that resulted in outs.

"It's tough because we've been swinging the bat good overall," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. "Unfortunately, we hit them right at people. Nothing we can do about it.

"We just have to keep swinging and eventually they're going to fall in holes. We had a stretch where everything was falling and that's just the name of the game sometimes. You can't do anything about it.

"It's nothing to worry about. Guys feel good. The pitchers keep us in the ballgame and we start another series tomorrow."

To a man, the Cubs kept on message after Thursday's game, focusing on their upcoming three-game series in San Francisco and giving the Brewers credit for taking two of three from baseball's best team.

"It's just part of it," Rizzo said. "We're gonna go through the ups and downs of the season and this is one of them. It's part of the game.

"It's unfortunate because you want to come in and get off to a good start on this road trip. But we go out to San Francisco and we have Jake [Arrieta] on the mound tomorrow."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.