Cubs

Mets have jumped on a Cubs weakness and it's paid off big time

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Mets have jumped on a Cubs weakness and it's paid off big time

The New York Mets have built their team on young pitching, but it was a new style of play that really gave them a leg up in the National League Championship Series.

In the regular season, the Mets were second to last in Major League Baseball (and last in the NL) in stolen bases, but they came out running on the Cubs and it was a huge reason for the series sweep.

The Cubs had issues all year in slowing down the running game, and it goes beyond just Jon Lester's "yips" in throwing to first base.

"We're always working diligently to become better at that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday's Game 4 loss. "I can't disagree that we've not been the best at that. It's something we're always looking forward to getting better with.

"But it's just a work in progress. No, we don't just say don't worry about the runner. We don't say that at all. We have to get better at it."

[RELATED - Cubs' Montero on crucial dropped third strike: 'It really hurts']

The Mets stole five bases in the first three games of series and then Curtis Granderson and Wilmer Flores both came out and swiped second in the first inning of Game 4.

In the regular season, the Mets stole third base just five times total. In the NLCS, they stole third in each of the first three games and all three guys came around to score on a sacrifice fly, a groundout and a dropped third strike - ways they would not have scored from second base.

That's three runs in a series where the Cubs managed just five runs off the Mets' young pitching in the first three games

"In general, they just have played well," Maddon said. "They've played really well. They've done little things well and they've taken advantage of us in different moments. We've not been able to overcome because we're not hitting the ball like we normally can.

"This time of the year, everything does magnify a bit."

In Game 3 Tuesday, Cubs reliever Trevor Cahill lost track of Yoenis Cespedes on second base and the Mets outfielder stole third easily, eventually coming around to score the game-winning run on a wild pitch/dropped third strike.

That play had Cubs catcher Miguel Montero frustrated after the game.

"The guy was almost sliding into third when the pitcher still had the ball in his hand," Montero said. "That's what's been happening this year.

"We need to do a little better job holding the runners and changing the looks and things like that. But we really don't have time for that [now]."

Mets manager Terry Collins said before the NLCS started that his team would not change their style of play and change their identity, even if it meant taking advantage of the Cubs' weakness.

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Obviously, that was not the case.

"Well, we came in knowing that we had to be a little aggressive on the bases, something we don't normally do," Collins said. "We're not that kind of team. But we told the guys, look, if you get on and you think you can go, go.

"... We saw the numbers and teams steal bases against them, so we thought we could give it a shot. Even though we don't have perhaps the speed other teams have throughout the lineup, we've got a couple guys who can run, so we're doing - [first base coach Tom Goodwin] does a great job of investigating how and why teams are able to run.

"So we're trying to use a little bit of that in ourselves to see if we can set up some runs."

Mission accomplished.

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."