Cubs

How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

Johnny Cueto telling reporters this week that his strained left groin felt like a crab grabbing and biting him became another surreal moment for the San Francisco Giants during their second-half spiral. It could also be interpreted as yet another sign that everything could be aligning for the Cubs this season.

Cueto getting an MRI and potentially missing his next start could be extremely damaging for the even-year Giants. Because lining up a $130 million pitcher who earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year would give San Francisco a sense of momentum heading into Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field. But that’s only if the Giants can keep pace in the National League wild-card race and ride Madison Bumgarner into the next playoff round. 

The Giants, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals all woke up on Thursday morning with 80-72 records in this battle of attrition. The Mets look nothing like the team that dominated the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series, with Matt Harvey recovering from season-ending surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom undergoing another procedure to fix nerve damage in his right elbow and Steven Matz getting scratched from Friday night’s comeback start after a setback with the left shoulder tightness that has sidelined him since mid-August.

By Friday afternoon, the magic number to clinch the NL’s No. 1 seed will be two when the Cardinals invade Wrigleyville for a three-game series that could be an October sneak preview for the Cubs, a team with five pitchers who have made at least 28 starts this season. That group includes two Cy Young frontrunners (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), last year’s award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Texas cowboy who’s won two clinching games in the World Series (John Lackey).

“We feel good about where we’re at going into the second season,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “The home-field advantage after winning the division is huge for us. We want teams to have to come through our home. We want to be a very difficult team for other teams to come in here and play. Our record has proven that. And our health is imperative going forward.

“We have to have all of our horses lined up for the playoffs, including the bullpen with (Pedro) Strop and (Hector) Rondon. Knowing that we have those guys going into the playoffs – it’s special. I think it’s an advantage. And we have to take advantage of it.”

[MORE: How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far]

Beyond the maximum efforts those wild-card contenders will have to expend, the Washington Nationals don’t know when – or if – Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow will allow him to return this season or how he will live up to the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in May.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back doesn’t flare up again. And Dave Roberts had enough concerns about Rich Hill’s fragile nature that the manager pulled the ex-Cub after seven perfect innings against the Miami Marlins on Sept. 10, fearing blisters on his left hand.

“I’ve been aware,” David Ross said. “I saw Strasburg go down and then the Mets’ (situation). But Bartolo Colon can deal, you know what I mean?”

Ross had just watched Joey Votto drill a ball off Lester’s right wrist during Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Near the end of his farewell tour, Lester’s personal catcher stood at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and joked about his initial reaction: “Please don’t be hurt…there goes my job.”

“Anybody can be really good on a certain night,” said Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that featured Lester and Lackey. “Especially in that kind of atmosphere, guys tend to take their game to another level.

“We’re going to have a team that’s going to roll in here and try to beat us. (They’ll) try to do the same thing we’re trying to do – get to the World Series and (reach) the ultimate goal.

“I just told ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo) in the shower, it’s the whole Ric Flair (attitude): To be the best, you got to beat the best. And I dropped a big ‘Woo!’ on him in the shower.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

The means Arrieta recapturing the feel and swagger that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. This season’s glittering overall numbers (17-7, 2.96 ERA) haven’t completely covered up some of the command issues and inconsistent performances, which create another layer of meaning to Friday’s start against the Cardinals.

“Our pitchers will match up with anyone,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “At the end of the day, they got to make pitches, regardless. If you don’t make pitches, you won’t match up with anybody.

“Hopefully, we get Jake back on track, too, because I think it’s in there. It’s just maybe a little tweak here and there. But I believe he needs just one good outing to get the confidence back.”

The Cubs also don’t have any definitive answers for why their starters haven’t broken down, knowing there is an element of luck involved and that one pitch could change their entire playoff forecast.

“Most of these guys have had a good history,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think that’s the primary reason why (they’ve stayed healthy). You talk about some of these Dodger guys – they have had a history of not being well – so I think that’s just a history lesson more than anything. I’m certain they don’t do anything different than we do. I just think it’s up to the individual, the player.”

Especially in October, when the Nationals will have their own $210 million ace with Cy Young Award credentials (Max Scherzer) on the mound and Kershaw will be trying to rewrite his postseason legacy (2-6, 4.59 ERA) and the wild-card survivor won’t be feeling any suffocating pressure.

“That’s how it goes,” Ross said. “You’re going to have to play good baseball. You don’t get to the endgame without going through some really tough competition.”

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."