Cubs

No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

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No time to panic: How Cubs can get back in NLCS vs. Mets

Joe Maddon’s mind tricks and motivational gimmicks won’t save the Cubs now. Skip the “Rocky” theme song, save the zoo animals for later and ignore the manager’s red herrings. This team already created an identity, showing the resiliency needed to get back into this National League Championship Series.

It won’t be easy, not with Jacob deGrom waiting to slice up this lineup on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field and give the New York Mets a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven matchup.

But it’s not like these Cubs are soft or worrying about what happened against the Mets in 1969 or trying to pull off the impossible upset as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“This is a group that’s not afraid of losing and doesn’t approach the day like that,” said veteran catcher David Ross, who could be seen playing air guitar and singing along to the country music during Monday’s workout at Clark and Addison. “They attack the day. We’re excited about tomorrow’s atmosphere, for sure.”

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Hendricks welcomes pressure of pitching in 'must-win' game]

During the regular season, the Cubs won 34 one-run games, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in extra innings, running their total to 101 victories since Opening Day, a remarkable number for a group with so many rookies, castoffs and role players.

The chemistry has reminded president of baseball operations Theo Epstein of the iconic Boston Red Sox teams he helped build at Fenway Park.

“We went through a few different periods, makeup-wise, in Boston,” Epstein said. “The ’03-’04 sort of ‘Idiots’ and the ‘Cowboy Up’ carefree (attitude) — it reminds me of (that), how loose it is and how they don’t have a care in the world.

“They just enjoy each other’s company and making each other crack up and coming out raking and going back laughing about it. It’s a very similar vibe.”

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs push Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta on short rest in NLCS?]

Kris Bryant went there, too, thinking of the New York Yankees and that 2004 American League Championship Series. The 2015 Mets could win it all this year and still feel great about their five-year competitive window.

But does anyone think this New York team has a Hall of Fame core at the level of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, plus dynasty leaders like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, not to mention Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Mike Mussina?

“Anything’s possible in the playoffs,” Bryant said. “The Red Sox were down three games to nothing and they won. It really doesn’t matter. Anything can happen. A guy could step up huge each one of these four games. There’s no sense of desperation.”

Of course, it would help if someone actually hit like Manny Ramirez in the playoffs (.937 career OPS) instead of just hanging out with Manny Ramirez in the clubhouse.

Bryant had been a dramatically different hitter at Wrigley Field during the regular season, essentially transforming from an MVP winner at home (1.037 OPS) into a defense-first infielder on the road (.693 OPS).

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell hopes to be ready if Cubs survive and advance to World Series]

The weather should warm up from the bone-chilling temperatures over the weekend at Citi Field, and maybe the wind will be blowing out on the North Side for young power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez.

The Cubs already beat deGrom twice this year (6.10 ERA) and perhaps a lineup that led the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance can drive up the count and find the soft spots in New York’s bullpen.

“Nothing really changes,” Epstein said. “We’ve had a great mix all year as far as the chemistry in the clubhouse and the group psychology and rallying from a little bit of adversity.

“It’s our veterans embracing the young players and showing the way a little bit — and young players providing energy and production — and Joe setting the tone as just another day.”

[MORE CUBS: The mind-blowing statistics that prove Daniel Murphy just might have a deal with the devil]

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have a tabloid-friendly nickname like “The Dark Knight of Gotham” or “Thor” and no one will confuse the Game 3 starter’s finesse/control game with the upper-90s velocity unleashed by Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard.

But Hendricks won’t be underprepared or overwhelmed. The Dartmouth College graduate spent most of this year searching for a feel and trying to get into a rhythm, and he still wound up making 30-plus starts and finishing with a sub-4.00 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues.

“Look, tomorrow’s Tuesday for us,” Epstein said. “We’ve responded all year. Usually, actually, with winning streaks after we go through a little losing streak. So we hope to do that again. But the last thing I worry about is this whole psychological component of: Will we rally? Will we show up?

“We ran into two really good starting pitchers, and the baseball gods were a little bit against us that series, too. We smoked some balls that didn’t fall in, but we got outplayed, no excuses.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs playoff gear right here]

Maybe luck begins to even out and Mets outfielder/Chicago guy Curtis Granderson doesn’t make that leaping catch at the wall. Steven Matz, New York’s Game 4 starter, had only six big-league starts on his resume before the playoffs began. After hitting five playoff homers in October, Daniel Murphy will have to cool off eventually, right?

“Nobody feels desperation,” Bryant said. “We haven’t felt it all year. We have a tremendous kind of belief in each and everyone here. Once you let that creep in your head, you might as well just call it over. We don’t feel that way at all. We’ve never felt that way. I think we still have a pretty good chance.”

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."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: