Cubs

Kris Bryant homers, drives in 4 as Cubs beat Rockies

Kris Bryant homers, drives in 4 as Cubs beat Rockies

Mike Montgomery was on a strict pitch count but did all he could to stretch it in his starting debut for the Chicago Cubs.

Montgomery pitched four hitless inning before the low pitch count and a mistake ended his day two outs too soon, as the Cubs cruised to a 9-2 win over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday night.

Kris Bryant launched a long homer and drove in four runs, and Ben Zobrist had three hits and also went deep for Chicago.

Montgomery was solid in his first start since coming over in a trade with Seattle on July 20 but didn't stick around long enough to earn the decision. Manager Joe Maddon was cautious with the young left-hander and took him out after giving up a one-out homer in the fourth, the first and only hit he allowed.

Montgomery threw just 60 pitches but had not started since July 17 with the Mariners. His first seven appearances with Chicago were out of the bullpen, so Maddon kept him on a strict pitch count.

"It's almost like spring training for him right now. Just stretching him out," Maddon said. "I thought he was outstanding. Would I have loved to have left him out there? Absolutely."

He walked two batters through four innings and got Ryan Raburn to start the fifth, but Nick Hundley got Colorado's first hit off the lefty with a solo blast to left that made it 7-1.

Maddon took him out after the homer and Trevor Cahill (3-3) pitched the final 4 2/3 innings for the win.

"As a competitor I wanted to stay in," Montgomery said. "I was a little pissed but I understand the situation and the pitch count. That's just how it goes. I felt good but I respect the decision."

Miguel Montero had three hits and drove in three for the Cubs, who spoiled the major league debut of Rockies starter Jeff Hoffman.

"I felt very comfortable here," Hoffman said. "I don't know why that was. I was really expecting to be nervous, to be jittery, all that stuff. For my first big league game, this was exactly what I was expecting."

Hoffman (0-1), a former first-round pick who was acquired a year ago as part of the deal that sent Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto, started off well but ran into trouble the second time through against the NL Central leaders.

Bryant made it 7-0 in the fifth with his 31st homer, a three-run drive that went an estimated 469 feet to dead center.

It was scoreless until the fourth, when Dexter Fowler led with a single, went to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Hoffman and came home on Bryant's single.

Anthony Rizzo followed with a single, Zobrist's double made it 2-0 and Montero beat the shift with a two-run single to right.

"The three-run homer hurt," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "The big one was that two-run single by Montero. We get an out there, we're in good shape."

Hoffman allowed seven runs - six earned - on seven hits in four-plus innings.

The Cubs added a run in the eighth and another on Zobrist's 14th homer in the ninth.

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been under the microscope recently as they've hit another rough patch.

With Pedro Strop on the injured list, Cubs relievers have combined for a 5.04 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over the last week, allowing 32 hits and 11 walks against only 15 strikeouts in 25 innings.

The Cubs are shaking things up, sending veteran left-hander Xavier Cedeno to the injured list with left wrist inflammation and promoting right-hander Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa.

"We had to get things straightened out out there," Joe Maddon said of the bullpen. "Cedeno's still not 100 percent right, so we made that move. Wick's up and he's been pitching really well. We liked him in spring training; he provides length if we need it also, so there were a lot of reasons to do it, but he was pitching well enough to be here, too."

The Cubs acquired Wick, 26, from the Padres back in November for minor leaguer Jason Vosler. Wick has pitched well in Triple-A Iowa this season — in 13 outings, he has a 2.84 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while striking out 25 batters in 19 innings. 

Of his 13 appearances, 7 have been of a multi-inning variety and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 3 games (6.2 innings). He said a key to his success has been the ability to throw three different pitches for strikes and has been in a good flow lately of getting ahead in the count.

Wick made 10 appearances for the Padres in San Diego last year, sporting a 6.48 ERA in 8.1 innings.  The results weren't what he wanted in the big leagues, but that experience is something he can rely  on now.

"[I learned] that I can pitch here and that I belong," Wick said. "To be comofttable and hopefully pitch well."

Cedeno, 32, signed with the Cubs just before spring training started, but has been hampered by the same wrist issue all spring. He was first activated off the injured list less than two weeks ago and did not give up a run in 5 appearances, though he surrendered 4 hits and 3 walks in just 2 total innings of work.

With Wick in tow, the Cubs bullpen now looks like this:

Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery
Tyler Chatwood
Carl Edwards Jr.
Rowan Wick

Strop is working his way back from a hamstring injury and threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, so his return may not be far off. 

Brandon Morrow resumed his throwing program Monday, as well, but is still weeks away from returning even in a best-case scenario.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream