Cubs

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

So that six-game winning streak was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

The Cubs’ perfect second half came to a crashing halt Friday in the series opener with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, an 11-4 drubbing low-lighted by a never-ending eighth inning in which the Cards torched the Cubs’ bullpen for nine runs.

It was a screaming reminder that the second half, even with its 6-0 start, won’t be all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for the defending champs.

One nasty result after a six-game stretch of hot bats and hot pitching shouldn’t send Cubs fans panicking about a falling sky — even though the heavens opened up and poured a gigantic, watery metaphor down on the Friendly Confines after Friday’s bullpen implosion.

But it also looked like an indication that the troubles of a sub-.500 first half might not be totally exorcized from Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. Not that that’s denting the team’s confidence in any way.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten too high or too low, even throughout some slumps where we weren’t very happy about the way we were playing,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I feel like we’ve been able to maintain an even keel and stay focused. While there has been some frustration, that’s just kind of the nature of not playing up to your potential and knowing you’re better than you’re playing. But having said that, we are positive and will remain to be so throughout the near future and stretch of games we have coming up. We look forward to playing some good baseball.”

Most importantly, perhaps, Friday’s result showed that it’s not just the first-place Milwaukee Brewers that the Cubs have to be concerned with in what is suddenly a tight and crowded race in the National League Central.

The Cubs might have gotten within a game of the Brewers, but the Cardinals and the surging Pittsburgh Pirates are right there, too. After Friday’s game on the North Side went final, the four teams were within four games of each other. A Brewers loss Friday night in Philadelphia could make things even closer.

“Baseball’s crazy,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “You’ve seen a lot of races, I’m sure, and this is just the way that this division’s playing out. It’s really competitive between all of us.”

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Not dissimilarly from that up-and-down first half, Friday’s contest had signs both positive and negative for the team still on a quest to repeat as World Series champions.

Arrieta might’ve been relatively unremarkable, but he only gave up two runs in six innings, bettering numbers that were downright ugly earlier this season and perhaps signaling that his second half will be far more consistent than his first. In four July starts, he’s got a 2.13 ERA after posting ERAs above 4.50 in each of the first three months of the season.

Willson Contreras continued his torrid July with a first-inning home run. He’s batting .363 on the month with five homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games.

But the negatives were gaudier and more directly involved in the result. In addition to the offense going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine base runners, a bullpen that had been incredibly reliable fell apart in can’t-look-away fashion. Carl Edwards Jr., Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm combined to allow the first 11 batters of the eighth inning to reach. The first nine of them scored. Five of them walked.

Theo Epstein’s front office likely won’t answer the call of fans on Twitter howling for the team to trade for relief help. There’s no need to do that. Only the seemingly unbeatable Los Angeles Dodgers have a better bullpen ERA in the NL than the Cubs’ 3.51 mark.

“I trust our guys,” Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s nightmarish eighth. “The right guys are out there. C.J. was the right guy for the moment, it didn't play out. Rondon’s been throwing the ball great, but I really put him in a no-win situation. That’s my fault. And finally, Grimmer just had to suck it up.”

Maddon’s not wrong in singing the season-long praises of the three guys who got lit up Friday. But undoubtedly those three relievers provided some evidence that the final two and a half months of the regular season might not feature the Cubs sprinting away from their division-mates.

No, this could be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. And the Cubs have 26 games remaining against the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals.

So buckle up.

“That’s what you get when you play these kinds of teams that have a shot to reach the postseason,” Arrieta said. “We’re all within a few games of each other, so in our minds it’s up for grabs, it’s ours to take and we look forward to the opportunity to do so.”

Fergie Jenkins adjusts to new normal during what was his signature week of season

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USA TODAY

Fergie Jenkins adjusts to new normal during what was his signature week of season

Fergie Jenkins just got back from Lowe’s.

“They want people to stay inside,” he said. “I went out to get some fuel for my weed whacker.

“There’s still a lot of people shopping.”

The legendary Cubs pitcher spoke by phone from home in Frisco, Texas, late last week, the day after Texas’ stay-at-home order went into effect.

Jenkins, 77, is well aware he’s in the high-risk age range for COVID-19 reaction. So he’s being careful, mostly staying inside, using a lot of hand sanitizer, he said, and taking precautions the few times he goes out.

He picked a hell of a time to move from Scottsdale, Ariz., to his new place just north of Dallas — arriving barely a week ago just as the state of Texas braces for what authorities expect to be a steep rise in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.

It’s why he needs a few more trips to the hardware store than usual as he tries to settle in, for a lamp, a small appliance or a screwdriver. And why he usually needs to stop at the local Kroger’s grocery while he’s out or to handle another delivery of furniture when he gets back.

“I wash my hands about every 30 minutes,” he said, “with Dial soap and dry off with a paper towel. And I have Lysol spray. When I make a sandwich, I spray down the kitchen counters, and I spray the doorknobs, everything.”

If there’s a small silver lining in the moment for Jenkins, who expected to be spending last week in Chicago for the Cubs’ home opener, it might be that his focus on the move and on staying safe has distracted him from the closed ballparks during a time on the baseball calendar that was once his signature week throughout a 19-year Hall of Fame career.

Only nine pitchers in history have made more Opening Day starts than his 11 — including a franchise-record seven for the Cubs.

RELATED: Ranking Cubs' legend Fergie Jenkins' 11 career Opening Day starts

His last Opening Day start was 37 years ago today in his final season; his best, 49 years ago today when he pitched 10 innings to beat Bob Gibson 2-1 at Wrigley Field on a walk-off home run by Billy Williams.

“That was the fun part of it,” said Jenkins, whose Hall of Fame opponents in openers also included Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning, Dennis Eckersley and Bert Blyleven. “Just to tell yourself after all the hard work you did in spring training that if I’m not ready to compete today, I’m going to lose.”

He almost always was ready — his 2.58 career ERA on Opening Day compared to 3.35 the rest of the year attesting to that much.

The one he remembers most fondly is the first, in 1967, against the Phillies — his original team — at Wrigley Field with his parents in attendance.

“My mother had glaucoma and had never seen me pitch. She listened to games on a transistor radio. My dad had watched me pitch other ballgames in relief,” he said. “And just the fact that Leo [Durocher] gave me that opportunity in 1967…”

He pitched a complete game and beat Bunning 4-2.

A half century later, he finds himself opening boxes instead of seasons and wondering like the rest of us when the world — including sports — will find a semblance of normalcy again.

Jenkins, an ambassador with the Cubs, was in camp during spring training until Major League Baseball shut things down in mid-March and delayed the start of the season.

A year after losing his wife following a long series of health issues, he bought his new place in Texas at the end of last year, but he didn’t make the long drive from Scottsdale for the move until a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s been an experience. A little different,” he said. “I’m just doing things one day at a time.”

That means making use of his Weber grill, considering making use of his new bike in the new neighborhood and continuing his Cameo side gig on Twitter — which he used to help raise money for suddenly displaced game day workers at Sloan Park in Mesa after the shutdown last month.

“The world’s going through a crisis, and sports is the last thing on people’s minds right now,” Jenkins said. “When we had 9/11, especially in New York, they thought by playing baseball it would help give people something to think about besides what had just happened on 9/11.

“This is totally different.”

Ongoing. Uncertain. Spreading.

“It’s scaring people,” he said. 

“Sure, I miss the sport. I especially miss seeing hockey and basketball,” added the Canada native and one-time Harlem Globetrotter.

“Now it’s all changed. Now you turn the news on and see how many [new cases and media briefings] we’re having. And the president trying to do this and that. The world’s changed, and not for the good. Even beyond this [crisis].”

Jenkins said he’s confident baseball will be played this season, whether a 100-game season or 80, mostly based on a faith in medical science to provide at least more definition, if not reliable treatment for the virus.

A return in June? July? “Who knows?” he said.

What he might know as well as anyone, however, is the collective attention span and endurance level of a group of ballplayers during a lengthy shutdown.

As Cubs and other big-league players use Twitter and Instagram to show how they’re individually working out during shelter-in-place practices, Jenkins recalls how he and Texas Ranger teammates handled the longest single-season shutdown in major league history.

The Rangers were 33-22 and 1 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West when players began a two-month strike in June of 1981.

“Maybe 15 guys stayed around,” Jenkins said, rattling off the names of teammates such as Jim Kern, Doc Medich, Buddy Bell and Jim Sundberg.

They procured about six dozen balls from the team, Jenkins said, and then went to local parks to throw, run, take infield and take batting practice.

“Just a regular park,” he said. “Everybody would phone each other every day: ‘You coming to the park?’ … ’You coming to the park?’ “

After a day of workouts, they would head somewhere for an early dinner and talk about the latest strike news, he said.

“After about 40 days guys got sick and tired. It got to the point where guys were getting bored,” he said. “Then only a half-dozen guys were showing up. It just petered out.”

It would be another three weeks at that point before the 1981 season restarted.

If that experience is indicative of anything, it might simply underscore the need for at least three or four weeks of a second “spring training” once a start date is determined — if not suggest a reminder for how much of a gift any baseball at all this year might be.

As Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said the week after the shutdown: "If there’s not [a season], then obviously our world’s not in a good spot. This is bigger than baseball.”

Until then, Jenkins has a grill and a weed whacker to fire up. And Lysol to spray.

“I’m going to stay busy,” he said, mentioning some bass fishing he’d like to do once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

So he'll do his best to stay safe and well, he said.

“People are taking it to heart now, what’s going on. A lot of people are losing their lives. And now it’s the younger people,” he said. “It teaches you a lesson. They tell you what to do: Just do it.”

After all, this is a guy with a lot more Opening Days in mind — including this one.

“If they get everything settled, I’ll be back,” he said of joining the crew of Cubs Hall of Famers who were scheduled for the opening festivities, including Williams, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Lee Smith.

“Hopefully, we’re all there,” Jenkins said, then laughed a little. “If we’re all still kicking.”

Ranking Cubs' legend Fergie Jenkins' 11 career Opening Day starts

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Ranking Cubs' legend Fergie Jenkins' 11 career Opening Day starts

Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins is tied for 10th all-time with 11 Opening Day starts for three teams, including a franchise-record seven for the Cubs (two each with the Rangers and Red Sox). He compiled a 2.58 ERA on Opening Day (compared to 3.35 the rest of the year).

Monday marks the anniversary of three of those starts, including his best one, and his last one. He faced six other future Hall of Famers along the way in those openers. Ranking those 11 starts:

Ranking Fergie Jenkins' 11 career Opening Day starts

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