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Good vibes around Cubs interrupted by bad news for Ramirez

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Good vibes around Cubs interrupted by bad news for Ramirez

Bad news for Neil Ramirez interrupted all the good vibes around this Cubs team.

Ramirez walked off the mound with athletic trainer PJ Mainville in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s 5-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. Ramirez had just thrown three pitches to Joey Votto, struggling to find the velocity that’s made him a dominant reliever and shaking his right arm.

The Cubs are calling it “right shoulder discomfort” and expect to know more on Thursday after Ramirez gets an MRI.

“They haven’t really had a chance to analyze it in detail,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Obviously, the 90-mile-an-hour fastball was well below his thing. So something, obviously, was not well with him.”

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Catcher Miguel Montero immediately noticed the difference in Ramirez, who made his big-league debut last season and put up a 1.44 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 43.2 innings, looking like an elite setup guy.

“You don’t want to see that happen,” Montero said. “I don’t know if he’s hurt or not. But if he is, it’s a big loss. Hopefully, it’s nothing bad. He really kind of looked weird to me. Like the way he was warming up, something wasn’t right.

“(On his last pitch), he kind of pulled it and bounced it like he was trying to get it there. Something wasn’t right.”

That became the downer on a night where the Cubs (5-3) won their second series in a row, moved back into first place and hinted they might actually live up to some of the preseason hype.

Anthony Rizzo said it’s time to compete after Game 162 last season and doubled down during the team’s winter caravan, predicting the Cubs would win the National League Central this year.

Rizzo understood everyone would run wild with that quote, but the All-Star first baseman didn’t really care, finally seeing the pieces of the puzzle coming together.

Rizzo again set the tone in the first inning, blasting a two-run homer off ex-Cub Jason Marquis that disappeared into where the right-field bleachers are rising as a skeleton of steel beams.

[MORE: Cubs see Gold Glove/Andre Dawson potential in Jorge Soler]

The rebuild is a work in progress, but that shot was enough for Travis Wood, who Maddon affectionately called a “dirtbag” and “one of those throwback dudes.” Wood pitched into the eighth and got loud cheers from the crowd of 29,205 as he walked off the field after putting up seven scoreless innings.

“We need to do this,” Rizzo said. “We need to keep doing it and just get everyone rallying behind us. We’re all rallying for each other in here and we’ll get the whole city rallying behind us.” 

The Cubs felt confidence heading into this season with a deep, strong bullpen that had been methodically built. Justin Grimm — another pitcher acquired from the Texas Rangers along with Ramirez in the Matt Garza trade — is already on the disabled list with a forearm injury.

Theo Epstein’s front office and ex-manager Rick Renteria put Ramirez in an awkward situation last summer, trying to stash him at Triple-A Iowa for a “break” before the Major League Baseball Players Association intervened. The Cubs wound up putting Ramirez on the disabled list with “right triceps soreness.”

Maddon has to feel a level of concern for Ramirez, who will turn 26 next month and figures to be a big part of the future.

“It’s nothing real positive, I don’t think,” Maddon said. “We have to wait and see. I don’t like to go to negative town too quickly. But we’ll see.”  

Cardinals-Pirates series postponed, series vs. White Sox, Cubs loom on schedule

Cardinals-Pirates series postponed, series vs. White Sox, Cubs loom on schedule

The Cardinals' upcoming series against the Pirates has been postponed, MLB announced Sunday.

St. Louis hasn't played since July 29 as at least 16 members of the team have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. Their series against the Brewers last weekend was postponed due to an outbreak involving seven players, including catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong, and six staff members.

The Cardinals were set to return to play this weekend against the Cubs, but that series was postponed as at least three more Cardinals (two players — Austin Dean and Ryan Helsley — and one staff member) tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.

The Cardinals have played five games this season and are now looking at playing 55 in just 46 days. They have a doubleheader against the Tigers scheduled for Thursday before opening a three-game series at the White Sox this coming weekend. They then have a three-game set scheduled at the Cubs Aug. 17-19.

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Cubs players union rep Ian Happ said the possibility of dropping a team for the rest of the season, one that’s sidelined for an extended period due to an outbreak, hasn’t come up in any conversations he’s been a part of.

“I don't think the league's entertaining it; I don't think the Cardinals are entertaining it. I think that right now, you're looking at just how many games can they get in,” Happ said Sunday. “The people making the schedule, the people making the decisions on that, I think they're totally committed to trying to get 60 games in for that team and for every ballclub.

“I think if we get in a situation where something like this happens on Sept. 15 or Sept. 20, that's where we're looking at, 'OK how do we make this work?’ But right now, we still have plenty of time. 

“There's days on the calendar and they're gonna go ahead and see how many games they can get in.”

The Cardinals could play several doubleheaders when it's safe for them to return. MLB recently made a rule change to shortening those to seven-inning games.

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Cubs trusted MLB to 'do the right thing,' but that hasn't always worked in 2020

Cubs trusted MLB to 'do the right thing,' but that hasn't always worked in 2020

Before the Cubs headed to St. Louis for what would end up being a postponed three-game series, they discussed the risks they would be facing by sharing a ballpark with the Cardinals.

“We trusted the process and the league,” Cubs MLBA representative Ian Happ said Sunday. “Trusted that the testing they were doing, as shown, would pick up any positives. That they would do a good job of making sure that we were safe.”

As it turned out, COVID-19 testing did reveal that the Cardinals’ outbreak wasn’t over, and Major League Baseball postponed the weekend series. The Cubs’ trust in the league was validated in this case, but the process also emphasized how vital it is for MLB to get COVID-19 related decisions right.

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Just a week ago, commissioner Rob Manfred passed blame for the outbreaks onto the players, telling ESPN’s Karl Ravech, “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now.”

But Manfred has made mistakes along the way, with broad consequences.

From manager David Ross to the club’s front office, the Cubs have urged patience with the league as it navigates uncharted road blocks.

“We know the league has learned a lot with what happened with Miami,” Happ said. “And now they're continuing to learn with what's happening with St Louis, and we trust that they're going to do the right thing.”

Putting on a season in the middle of a pandemic was always going to be a challenge. But by going forward with it, Major League Baseball made a promise to its employees that it could handle the surprises. When people’s health and even lives are on the line, naivete is no excuse.

So, yes, there’s solace in the fact that the league pushed back the St. Louis series before any Cub could come into contact with a Cardinals employee. But the fact that it took mismanaging the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak to get there is troubling.

Don’t forget that when the Marlins had four positive tests, they still played the Phillies. Soon after, the Marlins’ positive test count skyrocketed to 21 players and staff members. Both Miami and Philadelphia’s schedules were impacted.

The Nationals took a vote – a step Happ said the Cubs never reached because they were in consensus that they’d play if cleared to do so – and a majority were against traveling to Miami.

“I probably wasn’t as aware of how many dominoes would fall when a team had an outbreak,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said last week.  

It wasn’t Hoyer’s job to know that. It was the league’s job to anticipate it.  

Thankfully only three Phillies staff members tested positive for COVID-19 after the team played the Marlins, and MLB identified two of those tests as false positives.

Major League Baseball seemed to learn from its mistake. When the Cardinals had two positive tests a week and a half ago, the league rescheduled their next game.

In a release, MLB said that the schedule change was, “consistent with protocols to allow enough time for additional testing and contact tracing to be conducted.”

By the time the Cubs sat in a St. Louis hotel Friday, waiting for the league to decide if their weekend series would be cancelled, MLB had adjusted the way it implemented the protocols it referenced. It had even strengthened its health and safety guidelines, for road games especially.

“The testing protocols worked,” Happ said. “They did a great job of picking everything up and making sure that the process was taken care of, when it pertains to the direct contacts and making sure that they took the right amount of time.”

The Cubs, who still have not had a player test positive, didn’t have to go through what the Phillies did: watching their opponent’s COVID-19 cases spike, with their own future unclear.

Major League baseball’s next challenge is cramming makeup games into an already packed schedule.

“It's important for us to get the Cardinals back on the field in the next week,” Happ said. “That's a big part of this.”

Even if the Cardinals are able to resume play Thursday, they would have to play 55 games in 46 days to complete a full schedule. But Happ said he hasn’t been involved in any discussions about dropping a team from the season due to COVID-19.

“I don’t think the league’s entertaining it,” he said. “I don’t think the Cardinals are entertaining it.”

As the league reshuffles the schedule, Major League Baseball is again in unchartered territory. Let’s hope this time it can get it right on the first try.

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