Cubs

Maddon, Cubs giving Iron Man Anthony Rizzo his own 'mini All-Star break'

Maddon, Cubs giving Iron Man Anthony Rizzo his own 'mini All-Star break'

Joe Maddon took full advantage of the off-day Thursday.

"I rested my butt off," the Cubs manager said.

Maddon wants Anthony Rizzo to do the same, giving the Iron Man first baseman the day off Friday to kick off a holiday-weekend series against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Rizzo has played every game for the Cubs so far, appearing in 399.1 innings at first base out of a possible 407.1.

He led the National League in games played (160) and plate appearances (701) last season and has missed only 26 games since the start of 2013.

"This is something I was looking forward to doing," Maddon said before Friday's game. "When I was with Tampa Bay, I used to do this with Carl [Crawford] all the time to try to take advantage of either the front or back side of a day off to give him two days off.

"I think it's great the way it all played out with the left-hander today (Adam Morgan) for them. And then we play consecutively after this — hopefully, barring any rainouts.

"It was a good time to just give him his little mini All-Star break. And then just have him come back fresh tomorrow."

Friday's game began a stretch of 13 straight for the Cubs, who don't have their next off-day until June 9.

Maddon said he wouldn't hesitate to use Rizzo off the bench if the Cubs needed it Friday.

The All-Star first baseman and perennial MVP candidate is mired in a 3-for-38 slump with his last extra-base hit coming May 14 against the Pirates.

Maddon is hoping this day off will help Rizzo recharge mentally, too.

"I'm anticipating a good result, so that moving forward later in the season, maybe do the same thing again," Maddon said. "'Cause it really does rest those guys up."

Maddon is also giving Jason Heyward his own "mini All-Star Break" Friday after playing two straight games coming out of the scary-looking injury in San Francisco last week.

Heyward left in the first inning of last Friday's game and then missed the next three before playing every inning of the final two games against the Cardinals this week.

Maddon said Heyward is feeling OK, but the Cubs just want to play things safe.

"I wanna be a little cautious," Maddon said. "We had a significant moment in San Francisco. We were more worried that it was going to be even worse and it turned out to be good, so why press our luck right now?

"Let's take advantage of the moment. And a lot of times, the schedule tells you what to do, you just gotta pay attention."

In place of Heyward and Rizzo, Maddon inserted Matt Szczur in right field and Kris Bryant at first base.

Maddon forecasted his backup plan at first base last week in Milwaukee the day after Rizzo was removed in the ninth for a pinch-runner in a game that ultimately went to 13 innings. 

Javy Baez was the option then at first base, but Bryant did shift over there for an out. 

Friday, Maddon opted for Baez at third and Bryant at first.

"KB's been really good at third base. Just a little bit more agility there with Javy," Maddon said. "I still like how large KB is at first base, for lack of a better word. I mean, he's big. He's a great target.

"Moving forward, it's kind of interesting to give him an opportunity to do it. This is something when he's 10 years from now, he's probably going to be able to do very easily. For right now, I like the agility of third base with Javy and I like the target at first base with KB."

Bryant has continued his evolution into Mr. Versatility this season, moving to right field in a tough ballpark when Heyward got hurt last week and regularly seeing time in left field and third base.

When asked how he will handle the transition to first base, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year had the same reaction he does to most things — a simple shrug of the shoulders.

"I think I have good instincts on the field, so I'm gonna go with those and hopefully my glove's broken in," he said through a smile. "That's all I'm worried about, really. I think just playing the infield and throwing the ball across the diamond a lot, I kinda see how it works over there and the bunt defenses and stuff like that. I think it should be alright."

Bryant said he's not worried about making scoops or stretches, relying on his hands and instincts and acknowledging that those are both actions in the moment.

Bryant — who has 6.1 innings under his belt at first base in his professional career — also said he feels comfortable wherever he plays and has talked in the past about being seen as a "baseball player" rather than a "third baseman" or "outfielder."

"I've played some first before," he said. "I played my freshman year in college. I actually worked out mostly at first base my whole fall leading up to the season and then I played third base the whole year there.

"I've had some experience there working around the bag, turning double plays, throwing from a different arm slot over there. I feel comfortable with it.

"I like to be a baseball player and I guess this is another one of those situations where I get to kinda show that."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.