Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler isn’t a finished product or the most polished hitter, but he’s someone the other team has to account for, a fast-twitch athlete with the power to change a game with one swing.

That’s exactly what Soler did for the Cubs during Wednesday night’s 6-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, crushing Jimmy Nelson’s 93-mph fastball and driving it into the back of the left-center field bleachers, nearly hitting the bottom of the video board with a three-run homer.

That became the exclamation point to a five-run, first-inning blitz that allowed Jon Lester to go into cruise-control mode and gave the bullpen a breather the day after a doubleheader. Soler might not ever be able to do this for 150 games and 600 at-bats a year – the injury-prone label sticks – but he can be a dangerous hitter in a short playoff series.

Just look at what Soler did to the St. Louis Cardinals last October, setting a new major-league record by getting on base in his first nine career postseason plate appearances and hitting two homers in four games.

“Presence,” said Lester (13-4, 2.86 ERA), who pitched into the seventh inning and limited the Brewers to one run and three hits. “He’s a big feller.

“(It) adds to that pitcher having to work to get to the bottom of that order, (because) guys aren’t allowed to take breaks. That’s the biggest thing. Tonight (against the Brewers), you get to the bottom of the order, you’re like: ‘OK, I got this guy, I got this guy, then I got the pitcher.’ And you feel like you can navigate. I don’t feel like you can do that with our lineup.

“It’s very, very deep. And I think that plays well into October, and hopefully to where we can use different matchups as far as the DH.”

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Yes, the didn’t-come-here-for-a-haircut Cubs are already thinking about the World Series, moving to 33 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season and keeping a 12.5-game lead over the Cardinals in the division.

Soler embraced that playoff pressure last year, admitting he played with sharper focus, and the Cubs might need another big bat with Kyle Schwarber unable to hammer pitches onto video boards and Jason Heyward enduring one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball this year.

“When George is swinging it well, he’s a huge part of this team,” said David Ross, who also homered off Nelson in the third inning. “He’s a presence with the power he has – and how well he hits lefties – and now he’s hitting righties. He’s just not missing the ball. You can tell he’s locked in.

“It makes our lineup that much deeper. When he was out, from the catcher’s standpoint, you see that the lineup’s shortening. Once you get past a certain guy, then it’s a little easier to navigate the lineup.”

After missing almost two months with a strained hamstring, Soler has gone 11-for-29 with a double, four homers and 10 RBI in 10 games since coming off the disabled list, adding another dimension to the best team in baseball.

“That’s why the ball is being struck as well as it is – he’s really staying in the zone,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s been very patient. That’s something (our hitting coaches) promote with all of our hitters. But with him, it’s really obvious. When he’s in the zone, when he’s not permitting the pitcher to expand, he’s really good.”  

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.