Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon is the king of chill.

The relentlessly positive Cubs manager could never be described as uptight and he spends a lot of time making sure his players feel loose and free.

Matt Szczur has looked awfully comfortable in the early going, hitting .385 with a 1.192 OPS in 16 plate appearances. He also has five RBI - the same total as Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler and one more than Ben Zobrist.

Maddon chalks up Szcuzr's small sample size of success to a more relaxed approach and mindset.

"What you're seeing now is what he's done in the minor leagues," Maddon said. "I think he's finally getting comfortable here. If you watch him in batting practice, there's more of a tension-free approach to his game. He's not uptight.

"He is thinking here as he had done in Triple-A or Villanova or wherever. I think that's the difference. I like that. 

"He's very talented. He has a lot to contribute. He's a tremendous athlete - runs well, throws well, hits well, he's got great power. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but the ball really jumps for him."

Szczur was always pretty highly regarded as a prospect, going in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft and passing up a possible pro football career. He was ranked as the No. 64 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season and posted a .733 OPS in six minor-league seasons with 26 homers and 140 stolen bases.

Now the 26-year-old Szcuzr is getting his chance on the big-league level, making his first Opening Day roster when Javy Baez started the season on the disabled list and now with Kyle Schwarber lost for the season, Szczur could be in Chicago to stay as a key role player in the outfield.

Maddon has already utilized Szczur in almost every game on the young season, whether as a defensive replacement, pinch-hitter or spot-starter to give an outfielder a rest (as he did Saturday, playing right field to spell Jason Heyward).

Szczur has worked with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee to stop rolling over on the ball so much and grounding out to the left side of the infield and the results are showing on the field right now.

"He's made a lot of nice adjustments," Maddon said. "The biggest thing I'm talking about - I've only known him for a little over a year now, but I can see a definite difference in just his approach to the day here at the major-league level."

Szczur said the major difference in his mindset is a change in confidence and knowing he belongs in the big leagues. He is out of options, so the only way the Cubs can send him down to the minor leagues is if they put him on waivers and risk losing him to another organization.

"I'm not thinking that I'm gonna go down," Szczur said. "Last year, I feel like I was playing very tight. Didn't want to make a mistake and get sent down, because I knew if someone got hurt or if we used an extra pitcher or someone had to come up, I was gonna go down.

"This year, I'm able to play a lot looser. I think it's helped me a lot. A lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure."

Szczur said he spent a lot of time learning from veteran Chris Denorfia last season. Denorfia has made a career out of being a role player and his game is similar to Szczur's - right-handed hitter, solid defense all around the outfield, a blend of power and speed.

But no matter what he learned from Denorfia, Szczur couldn't shake that feeling last season that he could be sent down to the minors at any moment.

"I feel like more of a part of the team now because I know I'm not going down," Szczur said. "I feel like an everyday guy here. I know everybody. I'm comfortable here.

"For me, it's much easier. I know I belong here and I know I'm not going down."

Where Cubs stand in updated All-Star voting


Where Cubs stand in updated All-Star voting

The Cubs were swept in four games at the hands of the Reds. The news on the All-Star ballot hasn’t been kind as well.

Starting positions for Cubs players at the 2018 MLB All-Star game is looking a little bleak. But catcher Willson Contreras is still in striking distance.

MLB updated its third round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Dating back a week ago, Contreras was behind Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. As of now, that number is quite similar with Posey up 92,000 votes.

For other Cubs players, the margins have continued to grow in the wrong direction as the week has gone along.

The race for first base is a clear cut path for Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman. With nearly 2,200,000 votes to Freeman’s name, he’s ahead of Anthony Rizzo by nearly 1.3 million votes. At this point last week, Rizzo was down 870,000 votes.

The race for second base is a bit closer. Javier Baez has complied 1,186,243 votes, but he still trails Braves’ Ozzie Albies by 222,000 votes.

But Baez shouldn’t be too comfortable. Reds second basemen Scooter Gennett is just 19,000 votes behind him. Gennett could leap frog Baez, with still 10 days left to vote.

If Baez can get his name ahead of Albies, he’d become the second Cub to start at second base in three years, when Ben Zobrist started in 2016.

Kris Bryant, who has struggled this year offensively, is still struggling in the Midsummer Classic standings. Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado leads Bryant by 646,400 votes, compared to 447,000 votes last week.

Rounding out the infield with Addison Russell at shortstop, he still sits in third place, trailing Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson and Giants Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, it is more of the same for Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist. Heyward sits in seventh place with 750,688 votes. Schwarber in eighth has 706,374 votes, and Zobrist has 694,377 votes in ninth.

Even though the Cubs probably won’t see multiple starters on the field this time around, it doesn’t mean they won’t have a chance to be selected as reserves.

Cub faithful still has time to get their players to the All-Star game. Voting ends July 5 at 11 p.m. CT.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).