Cubs

Kris Bryant's 'unusual' patience a microcosm of Cubs' lineup

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Kris Bryant's 'unusual' patience a microcosm of Cubs' lineup

CINCINNATI — Kris Bryant may not have a home run yet, but he has been bringing something just as valuable to the Cubs lineup — patience.

In his first nine big-league games, Bryant is hitting .379, but it's his .526 on-base percentage that really stands out, with a stellar walk-to-strikeout ratio of 8:8.

"[Opposing pitchers] are going after him pretty hard right now," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "To his credit, he's not just swinging at everything. He's taking his walks. If he continues to do that, he's going to continue to hit at a high pace.

"[The walk-to-strikeout ratio] absolutely is [impressive]. Normally, these [power] guys should strike out over 100 times and if they walk even 50 or 60 times, that'd be fabulous. But for right now, he's just doing a nice job of not biting. They keep trying to expand the strike zone and he's not doing it."

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Bryant is averaging 4.29 pitches per plate appearance, which would rank fourth in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

Even if the power hasn't completely been there in the early going (Bryant does have four doubles), Maddon likes what he sees from the rookie slugger.

"[His patience] is unusual," Maddon said. "Even just talking to him in spring training, he demonstrated a really different level of thinking for what he's about to do here. He just never seems to be frazzled or anxious about a moment. He seems to have that moment thought out and under control.

"He wants to be in the present tense. He's very mindful of really enjoying himself out there and not making it a difficult moment.

"All those forces combined to help him not want to try to get it down like right now — 'My at-bat right now, if I take a walk, it's a good thing; I'll get them the next at-bat.' He's really been good at that. It's just been one at-bat at a time.

"The home runs are going to come. Guys like that, when they start hitting them, they start hitting them in clusters."

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon sees a lot of Joey Votto in Anthony Rizzo]

The Cubs as a team lead the NL in pitches per plate appearance (3.93) entering play Sunday. Anthony Rizzo is 10th in the league with a 4.18 mark, while Jorge Soler (3.95) and Dexter Fowler (3.86) also ranked in the Top 40.

Addison Russell has only played four games in the big leagues and is hitting just .111, but he's actually averaging 4.50 pitches per plate appearance, better than everybody on the Cubs except for Tommy La Stella (5 pitches per plate appearance in two games).

"Every hitter goes up there and we're just not up there hacking right now," Maddon said. "We're really working mindful at-bats and that's kinda fun to watch.

"Part of it is [the rookies] are going to keep getting better. They're already good."

Soler has been scuffling a bit lately, mired in an 0-for-11 stretch the last three games (entering play Sunday), including eight strikeouts.

But the 23-year-old rookie has drawn three walks in that span and is actually averaging five pitches per plate appearance.

[RELATED: Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs]

Maddon thinks the results will come for Soler.

"He was doing really well [with strike zone judgement] in the beginning and all of a sudden, he's started to expand a little bit," Maddon said. "And when that happens, there's nothing wrong with your swing; it's just organize your strike zone again.

"He's had the reputation of being able to organize the strike zone, which tells me he's going to do it again. Right now, he's a little bit eager. He's had a lot of guys in scoring position, too. He's also done some really nice damage.

"I just think when he gets back to his zone, he's going to start hitting the ball consistently well again."

Theo Epstein's front office has made it a point to acquire and develop guys who see a lot of pitches and can work an at-bat, following the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees model.

The results have been there for the Cubs in the early going, averaging 4.56 runs per game the first three weeks of the 2015 season.

Bryant hitting in the middle of that lineup will continue to help set the tone.

"I just think he understands the importance of [taking pitches]," Maddon said. "He's come up also with a lot of guys on base and he's not succumbed to chasing just to move the baseball. I really like that."

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.