Now Cubs have to respond to the adversity and move on with or without Addison Russell: ‘Real life happens all the time’

Now Cubs have to respond to the adversity and move on with or without Addison Russell: ‘Real life happens all the time’

It’s probably too simple to say the Cubs played distracted on Thursday night at Wrigley Field. It’s also not really an exaggeration to suggest the defending World Series champs could be in crisis mode.

The Cubs held a brief team meeting before a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies, getting an update on Addison Russell’s situation and a reminder on how to handle questions about domestic-violence allegations they don’t have answers for now.

This is unchartered territory, a third-party accusation on Instagram that has since been deleted, a relatively new Major League Baseball policy that gives commissioner Rob Manfred a lot of latitude and little precedent and the Cubs not knowing when their All-Star shortstop will return.    

“We have great clubhouse chemistry, but real life happens all the time,” team president Theo Epstein said. “Sometimes, it reaches the light of day, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there are serious situations that come up throughout the course of a season and right now we’re dealing with a very serious allegation.

“We’ll see where it develops. But, yeah, it’s not always just baseball in there. Everybody has a personal life. The real world happens every day to guys and they know how to deal with it and still play the game.”

Three-plus hours after the Cubs announced Kyle Hendricks would be going on the disabled list with a hand injury, the first-place Rockies jumped  their other Cy Young Award finalist from last year. Jon Lester watched ex-Cub DJ LeMahieu – a rare miss from the early days of the Epstein administration – launch a two-out, three-run homer into the right-field basket that gave Colorado a 4-1 lead in the second inning. This kind of night: Lester was informed that LeMahieu had hit only one other home run off a left-handed fastball within the last four years.  

“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” Lester said. “It’s a game that can be cruel to you at times and be really good to you at times. With Kyle doing down, all the stuff going on with Addie, you know what, that’s why we’ve got 25 guys and we’ll figure it out. You can’t worry about stuff you can’t control.

“The next guy will step in and hopefully fill that void. That’s all you can really do in this game. You can’t dwell on the negatives and you look forward to tomorrow.”

Even if the Cubs sound optimistic about Hendricks, there are now questions up and down the rotation, from how Mike Montgomery transitions out of the bullpen to where Jake Arrieta goes from here to how much John Lackey (5.12 ERA) has left at the age of 38 to if Eddie Butler can stick in the big leagues after failing with the Rockies.

Sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend now feels like ancient history for a 30-29 team near the beginning of a 30-games-in-31-days stretch between June 2 and July 2 that hasn’t even gotten into the 17 road games in five different cities yet.

“It’s all about depth,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You don’t win without depth. That happens on an annual basis. We’ve been pretty good regarding picking other guys up over the last couple years.

“These are the kind of things you have to expect during the course of the year.”

It would be foolish to write off the Cubs when they are only one game out of first place in a weak division. Javier Baez might wind up being a better shortstop than Russell and Epstein could trade for a big-time starter before the July 31 deadline.

But it’s also probably time to slow down the Cubs Way narrative about the organization’s emphasis on character and makeup after rationalizing Aroldis Chapman’s 30-game suspension under MLB’s domestic-violence policy and making that blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees last summer.

“I think they’re distinct at this time,” Epstein said. “With Aroldis Chapman, it was a player who had served his discipline and had undergone the disciplinary action through the program.

“He was somebody who we then spent a lot of time doing our own research on whether we thought he had grown from the incident and moved on and could be a productive member of our clubhouse and a good citizen while with the Cubs.

“This is an allegation by a third party on social media. They are distinct situations, but they both fall under the same general umbrella. And because the nature of the allegation is very serious, we are taking it very seriously.”

All the players can do is shrug their shoulders, get through the initial media wave and go back to work.

“We’re human beings,” said Anthony Rizzo, the face-of-the-franchise first baseman. “We’re put on this high level, but things happen off the field that usually don’t get this far to the media. Things are going on all the time, on and off the field. You learn to deal with it.

“I love Addison. We’ve had some really good memories together, but I don’t know. I love him here. I don’t know what’s going on outside of this.”

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.