Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

"Defense wins championships" is more of a football slogan, but the Cubs believe it applies to baseball, too. Throughout the 2016 season, the Cubs have posted historically good defensive numbers, to the point where they may be the best fielding team in baseball history. Now with October baseball in full swing, the Cubs are hoping that defense can carry them to the promised land.

Jake Arrieta vs. Madison Bumgarner should be a classic pitching matchup in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, the San Francisco Giants trying to avoid elimination on Monday night at AT&T Park. Focusing on run prevention, manager Joe Maddon went with a defense-first type of lineup as the Cubs took a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five battle, inserting elite defender Javier Baez at second base and moving Ben Zobrist to left field with offensive-oriented outfielders Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan on the bench.

"Defense wins championships," pitcher Jon Lester said. "The quarterback gets all the glory, but at the end of the day, if you're allowing a bunch of points, it doesn't really matter.

"Our defense has been unbelievable all year with guys bouncing around different positions. You got Javy playing second, which was kind of different for me. I'm used to seeing him at third and [Kris Bryant] in left. So, Joe does it again, you know what I mean? It's crazy."

The Cubs did commit three errors in Game 2 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, but one was a catcher's interference called on Willson Contreras and the other two came on the same play when Bryant bobbled Bumgarner’s grounder and then compounded his initial mistake by throwing the ball into the visiting dugout. Neither player came around to score.

With runs at a premium in the postseason, it puts defense squarely in the spotlight. For the Cubs, their historic efficiency at turning batted balls into outs has a trickle-down effect, helping give the pitching staff an air of invincibility.

"I feel like any pitch, any ball that's hit into play, the play's gonna be made," reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said after making his postseason debut in Game 2. "It takes a lot off of me and all the other pitchers knowing we don't have to go out there and constantly try to strike out everybody and waste pitches.

"We can go out there with confidence and know if the ball is put in play, the play will be made."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have a handful of players who could easily win a Gold Glove this season - Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Bryant and Baez. But guys like Bryant and Baez may not given how much they've moved around the diamond. Maddon has pushed the idea of a new super-utility Gold Glove just for Baez, while MVP candidate Bryant played 69 games in the outfield this season.

"That's a testament to our guys," Lester said. "They go to different positions, they don't complain about it. 'KB' came up as a third baseman and look what he's done - he's played first, he's played left, he's played center.

"These guys don't complain. They just know it's for the greater good of the team and they go and play different positions. It seems to always kind of pay off for us. And I think it makes those guys better, too.

"It makes our team obviously better. But I think it makes them better just being versatile and giving us different looks, different lineup matchups and stuff like that."

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.