Cubs

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.

“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”

Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).

Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).

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The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.

“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.

“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.

“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”

The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).

A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).

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The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.

“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.

“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”

The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."